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COMM OPS: The Satellite—Fiber Connection
by Paul Dujardin, CEO, Genesis Networks

For everything from training programs and videoconferencing to entertainment programming for soldiers, satellite transmissions play a prominent role in the military’s global communications strategy. While satellite will continue to be a critical transport mechanism for the military to deliver signals out of remote areas, in many situations, a fully managed, fiber optic network offers a superior option by offering lower latency, increased flexibility, and additional value.

As military technology has come of age in the satellite era, the armed forces tend to be extremely satellite-centric in their communications. Yet, many military organizations are questioning the practicality, and logic, of inserting a 23,000-mile satellite hop in a connection between two geographically close locations. In recent years, fiber optics has become an extremely attractive option, given the development of new technologies that have facilitated high-performance terrestrial delivery from origination to destination.

IP, for example, is enabling broadcasters of sports, news, and entertainment to economically transmit multiple standard and HD channels through a single fiber link at collective bit rates that would far exceed the bandwidth available on a satellite transponder.

This is good news for the military, which, in many countries such as the U.S., is mandated to provide global communications to all service men and women regardless of where they are stationed. This includes not only Internet access but high-quality television programming such as that provided by Armed Services Radio and Television Service. Troops stationed in Iraq expect — and deserve — to watch the Super Bowl at the same quality as the viewers on the home front. In such a situation, which requires delivery of a signal into a remote area that might have limited or sub-par domestic fiber-optic connectivity, some military organizations are approaching satellite and fiber as complementary tools for global transmissions.

This hybrid satellite-fiber approach relies upon satellite services transmitted through mobile units or a telecom infrastructure for “first or last mile”, with fiber providing the linkage for international transmission. By maintaining partnerships with satellite providers throughout the world, the managed fiber-optic provider is able to receive and aggregate satellite signals, and then transmit them terrestrially to far-flung locations. This configuration works just as well in reverse, with the content being delivered into the region by fiber and satellite providing the last-mile delivery to the destination.

With a managed fiber network working hand-in-hand with satellite, the military now has a reliable and cost-effective means of delivering programming to the troops wherever they are stationed, while limiting the human intervention and satellite double- or triple-hops that often result in operational errors. Likewise, content can be brought out of the area via satellite and inserted into programming for delivery, via fiber, to audiences back home.

Televised entertainment is not the only realm in which a managed fiber optic network adds great value for military communications. As I’ve said, terrestrial fiber is a more reliable, efficient, and cost-effective option for linking sites in areas that have well-developed fiber optic connectivity, offering clean transmissions without the degradation in signal quality that sometimes results from multiple satellite hops. This makes it ideal for videoconferencing among key military decision-makers, training of troops across widely scattered geographic locations, and even medical consultations in which physicians in field hospitals can connect with larger medical facilities to share high-definition images such as x-rays and CT scans. Further, the security of fiber makes it better suited for transmission of classified information, since, unlike copper cable, fiber cannot be tapped.

In many situations, such as natural disasters, military and government applications of hybrid fiber-satellite communications extend beyond wartime. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for instance, FEMA relied on mobile satellite transmissions from the heaviest-hit areas, which were downlinked to a managed fiber network, and transmitted to FEMA headquarters to help the agency survey damage and determine what aid resources to send in.

In these stressful times, as military resources are stretched and budgets tightened, managed fiber optic networks offer the armed forces one more powerful weapon for “doing more with less”. As a replacement for, or as a supplement to, satellite communications, fiber presents a high-quality, and highly flexible, solution for occasional-use communications links as well as permanent networks.

About the author
Paul Dujardin is Chief Executive Officer, Genesis Networks.