Intelsat General — a subsidiary of the satellite services conglomerate Intelsat S.A. — moved its headquarters in the summer of last year to Tysons Corner, Va, which also houses offices for the parent company.
Kay Sears has led Intelsat General as president for 9 years and the business was one of 14 contractors selected for a potential 15-year, $494 million Air Force program to use hosted payloads and study technologies for those platforms.
This in-depth conversation with Sears features her outlook on the future of hosted payloads in the public sector, mobile device proliferation’s current role in satellite communications market activity and her view on how industry should help the military increase its adoption of commercial Satcom technology.
ExecutiveBiz: What is the most significant Satcom trend right now?
Kay Sears: Mobility is the most significant Satcom trend that applies commercially and with Intelsat General's customer set – the government and military market. Mobility means the need to get more data to mobile devices, platforms, and things on the move. We are seeing that trend across a lot of applications driven primarily by full-motion and 3D video.
In the military market alone, both manned and unmanned planes as well as helicopters and much smaller UAS systems want to have the ability to go beyond line of sight to deliver and collect data. These platforms are primarily used to provide real-time battlefield awareness for better decision-making in the field.
On the commercial side, it is consumer-based or business-based. We travel around with our mobile phones and we want the same kind of connectivity into those devices at work and at home. Large amounts of data are driving how we move this traffic into smaller devices.
Smaller terminals are another Satcom trend that is enabling the mobility market. Putting a Satcom terminal on a helicopter or on a small unmanned aerial system are things we couldn't do a few years ago that we can do now. In addition to terminals, the satellites are also developing. Intelsat with its EpicNG satellite fleet will deliver high throughput capability, which will increase efficiency and performance globally.
This combined with smaller terminals enable us to meet these mobility demands.
ExecutiveBiz: How do you see hosted payload usage evolving in the near future?
Kay Sears: Hosted payloads have a bright future. The military is moving into a couple of different areas where hosting sensors and capabilities fit into what they are trying to achieve with respect to resiliency. There is a lot of talk about being resilient in communication networks, data networking and space. One of the ways to achieve that is hosted payloads.
One is essentially able to disaggregate that capability and replicate it many times on hosted platforms. Intelsat is positioned very nicely for this kind of concept and operations because we go to space anywhere from two to five times a year. We can carry space situational-awareness sensors or communications payloads that will help build the resiliency of the future architecture. We see hosted payloads and Intelsat as well aligned for that future.
Scientists look at hosted payloads as a cost-effective way to get sensors into space in order to monitor the oceans, the atmosphere and deep space. With our satellites and geostationary orbits, Intelsat can do real-time continuous monitoring of the environment from space.
Another military term that is part of the future architecture is reconstitution, a subset of resiliency. It is the ability to quickly resupply capability when we need more of something or it is knocked out. Hosted payloads are another way to reconstitute a capability by putting a sensor quickly on a satellite that is being built and prepared to be launched.
The industry got a slow start with the hosted payloads contracts with the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center but hosted payloads will be a big part of the new architecture designed around resiliency and reconstitution.
ExecutiveBiz: What can the military do to increase its access to and use of commercial satellite technology?
Kay Sears: We need the military to develop an architecture where it is clear what the commercial role will be in that architecture. We see communications services as a very good role for the commercial industry to supply to the military. At the height of the Afghanistan war, the commercial sector was supplying up to 95 percent of all communications services.
This is not something new for us. It is something that has a very strong and robust commercial industry around it for the past 50 years. The commercial operators today are not only putting up very capable capacity and systems, but it is something that we could offload from the government. They need to concentrate their military muscle and program dollars on things such as nuclear systems, missile defense, as well as command and control systems.
There is a great complement there. As we move forward, a future architecture is what we need first and foremost from the military. The military has to lay out what commercial will bring and what the government will build and buy. The architecture needs to be complementary, written down and understood.
There are some studies going on around this, but a lot of folks believe that this should no longer be studied and that we just need to develop a resilient architecture that includes commercial and military systems integrated into robust architecture. We hope the leadership in Air Force Space Command and the Pentagon will ultimately produce this for us. Without an architecture, it is hard for us to make meaningful investments.
We are building and developing new satellites all the time but if we don't understand the future architecture and the supporting applications, it is hard for us to make investments that target those capabilities. The second thing we need is a set of security requirements to integrate with our fleet planning. We've done a lot of work on the protected tactical waveform modem and its ability to operate over commercial systems.
We can develop other security and protection features into our satellites. However we don't have any real requirements or funding to begin that process. We might look back five years from now and regret lack of action on security features.
ExecutiveBiz: What can industry do to help facilitate that process?
Kay Sears: We are educating the decision-makers on what the commercial sector can bring. We are challenging the status quo or the ad hoc I've-got-to-own-it-and-operate-it mentality as it relates to military communications in the future. Look at what we are building and the kinds of systems we are putting up. Not only Intelsat but other operators have innovative and capable systems that have inherent protection features.
There's going to be available and capable capacity to handle these requirements. We are making sure that as the DoD studies the wide band communications requirements and the future design of the architecture, that they also understand what the commercial sector can bring. In addition, we are supporting some Pathfinder initiatives coming out of the SMC supported by the Pentagon and Congress.
These Pathfinder initiatives are aimed at retiring some of the risks that might be inherent in relying heavily on commercial for communications capability. It is geared around developing an acquisition strategy for the government to buy in the commercial sector more efficiently and effectively. Those are things that the industry can do to facilitate this new architecture and to speed up the process of getting a strong role for commercial industry.
ExecutiveBiz: What is your outlook for the future of Intelsat General one year after the move to Tysons Corner?
Kay Sears: It is a motivating experience to have a new office with an open floor plan that stimulates innovative conversations. We are in a mecca of what is going on in the industry in the D.C. area and it has been a good move. We are embarking on some projects around satellite operation services. We’re looking at what Intelsat can do for the U.S. government in this austere time where they need to spend limited dollars on inherently military items.
It has been recognized that the government can't continue to buy these billion-dollar systems. Spending that kind of money on current ground operations is just not sustainable. They need partnerships with commercial and with allies. We are focused right now on the operations side and presenting to the government and the military commercial ways to operate their ground systems and bus systems in space. We call it satellite-related services.
It is something that we took on at IGC this past year after we moved into the new building. We are highly focused on offering these cost-saving operations capabilities to the military to help them save some money and focus their resources on things that commercial can't do or won't build. Intelsat has been in the business of ground and satellite operations for 50 years. We have been flying satellites for as long as the government has.
We have achieved efficiency and automation that can be leveraged very nicely by the U.S. military. We are also investing in some ground capabilities in S-band, the frequency band which is used primarily by military for command and control. We hope to have a great network of S-band to offer to the government in the future and really stellar operations. We achieve 99.999-percent availability of operations of our satellite fleet on a regular basis.
That vastly surpasses what the government can achieve on the systems they have built and operate. We are excited to bring these new operational capabilities so that the government can leverage technological developments from Intelsat and the commercial sector.