New Direct-to-Cell Satellite Tech Could Disrupt Billion-Dollar Military Satcom Programs

The US Space Force is keenly observing the rise of commercial satellite communications that allow standard smartphones to connect directly to satellites. This groundbreaking direct-to-cell technology is seen as a potential game-changer for existing military narrowband satcom systems like the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), officials announced today.

Disruptive Potential of Direct-to-Cell Technology

“We view direct-to-cell as a really disruptive thing,” said Col. Eric Felt, Director of Space Architecture at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration. Speaking at the SAE Media Group’s Milsatcom USA conference, Felt emphasized the significant impact this technology could have on military communications.

His office is closely monitoring advancements in commercial satellite communications, including direct-to-cell services. These services could potentially enhance or replace dedicated military narrowband satcom systems like MUOS, which currently provide secure voice and data to mobile forces.

Lynk Global operates “cell-tower-in-space” satellites that enable direct connectivity to standard smartphones. Source: Lynk

Path to Satcom Resilience

“How that technology develops is going to play out in how we provide service to the narrowband users,” Felt added. He highlighted that these new technologies could offer US forces an alternative path to satcom resilience. The Space Force plans to procure two new narrowband communications satellites from either Lockheed Martin or Boeing to modernize the existing constellation of five MUOS satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

The MUOS Service Life Extension program aims to ensure that MUOS continues to provide services well into the 2030s. However, the military is considering experimenting with commercial direct-to-cell services as it explores future options beyond MUOS.

Future Narrowband Architecture

A Space Force organization known as the Space Warfighting Analysis Center is completing a study on the future narrowband architecture. “They are looking at all kinds of options. The really disruptive thing here is direct to cell, 5G from space,” Felt stated. He emphasized that the MUOS Service Life Extension program would bridge the gap into the 2030s, allowing for a transition from the current MUOS terminals to more advanced technologies.

Commercial Innovations and Cybersecurity

Direct-to-cell satcom enables basic connectivity, such as messaging, on standard smartphones in areas without cell coverage. This is achieved by routing the phone signal through an orbiting satellite and then to terrestrial networks. Companies like Starlink, Iridium, Lynk Global, and AST SpaceMobile are competing to bring these services to market.

Felt highlighted the need for rigorous cybersecurity evaluations of any commercial service. However, the potential benefits of instantly connecting troops on any device to resilient satellite communications without special equipment have the Pentagon eager to test this technology.

Iridium, which has 66 operational satellites in low Earth orbit, is teaming with Qualcomm to provide direct-to-cellular 5G communications. Source: Iridium

Iridium’s Contract and Future Prospects

Clare Hopper, head of Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), mentioned that some direct-to-cell satcom providers have been selected to compete for task orders under the Proliferated Low Earth Orbit satellite services contract.

Hopper noted that future advancements in direct-to-cell technology would influence the Pentagon’s next contract with Iridium. In 2019, Iridium won the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services (EMSS) contract, providing DoD users worldwide access to its satellite network for unlimited voice calls and narrowband data transmissions. Iridium is currently developing a new direct-to-cell service called Project Stardust, which will allow standard smartphones to connect to its LEO satellite network.

Hopper pointed out that Iridium’s contract will be up for renewal in 2026. “Historically, we’ve had a very long and successful partnership with Iridium,” she said. “And we are already planning what the next generation of that program looks like, not just the partnership with Iridium, which we expect to continue, but also what other capabilities might grow into EMSS.”

Alexander Mitchell
Alexander Mitchell
Pilot on the B-767, international and overwater operations. Accomplished SIGINT/LLVI operator with five years of diverse experience in strategic and tactical operations. Adept in handling confidential information and situations with discretion. Respected leader, providing purpose, motivation, and direction focused on achieving and exceeding company goals.

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