Higher level communications

New network provides spot-to-spot links that bypass all terrestrial infrastructure

Washington, D.C., Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra yesterday participated in a panel at the CES Government conference in Lake Las Vegas via video hookup over a new satellite communications system being touted as an emergency alternative to terrestrial networks during disasters.

The session was part discussion of the challenges of information sharing and part demonstration of a satellite service being launched by Hughes Network Systems LLC.

The Inter-Government Crisis Network operates over the Spaceway 3 satellite, which does onboard switching and routing to provide point-to-point communications without a ground switching station or other terrestrial infrastructure. Hughes claims it is the smartest, fastest and most powerful communications satellite now in orbit.

“We put the smarts of the hub into the satellite,” said Dave Tuscano, senior director of sales operations for Hughes Government Solutions. “As long as you can convert anything to IP, the system can handle it.”

The demonstration was a three-way video and audio link between participants in Nevada, Kundra in Washington and Hughes officials at the company’s headquarters in Germantown, Md. Each site used third-party video conferencing equipment attached to Hughes terminals with 1.2 meter antennas to communicate with the satellite at rates of about 2 Mbps and to the other two sites with no additional network connections. Despite a noticeable delay of several seconds, the video from each site was full motion and the audio clear.

Kundra said he was excited about the potential of innovative new satellite systems for emergency response. The Washington area now has an interoperable 700 MHz public safety radio system and a standard satellite communications backup, but Kundra said communications between agencies during emergencies remains one of the biggest challenges in disaster response.

Kundra’s position in Washington is unique in that he operates at the federal government level, as well as at the state and local government levels in coordinating technology. He has won praise in technical circles for his efforts to expand the use of IT and to expedite the sharing of information. Kundra said that “democratizing” information and making it available to the public and to the private sector can spur innovation and create a more participatory democracy.

“It changes the culture of government,” he said.

Kundra had to cancel plans to speak in person at the CES Government conference because of planning for the inaugural events in Washington and the presidential transition. Both events require coordination among and establishing communications with many different agencies and organizations at the federal, state and local level.

The IGCN service is one of a number of commercial services offered by Hughes on its Spaceway 3 satellite, which became operational last year.

The satellite, built by Boeing, operates in the Ka band and has a total capacity of 10 Gbps. Its 784 spot beams allow it to focus broadcast energy and bandwidth capacity based on demand. It is in a geosynchronous orbit over North America that provides coverage for all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and parts of southern Canada. The onboard routing and switching mean that packets are switched to the appropriate beam and terminal address at the satellite, so that no hub or routing facility is needed on Earth.

It has a downlink speed of about 8 Mbps and an uplink speed of about 2 Mbps. Terminals can be grouped into pre-defined user groups protected by VPNs using either AES built into the system’s software or external Type 1 encryption devices. The system can provide bandwidth on demand or at a constant rate, with quality of service for data, voice and video.

“Obviously, you can do all of this with the Internet,” said George Choquette, senior vice president for engineering speaking from the Hughes headquarters. But the Spaceway service is not subject to the congestion or outages that the Internet or local network links are subject to during an emergency when infrastructure is damaged or overloaded.

“IGCN is not the Internet” was the mantra of the demonstration. It is being sold instead as a robust, high-availability alternative that can provide diversity in communications routes for emergency responders and public safety officials.

IGCN is a fixed rather than a mobile or portable system. Equipment includes a terminal with a 1.2 meter dish and a radio transceiver that is linked to a modem and computer equipment at the site being served. The cost is about $3,000 per site, plus subscription fees based on the type of service being bought.

“The system has been built to support millions of terminals accessing the satellite,” said Mike Cook, Hughes senior vice president of North American sales. “We expect hundreds of thousands of terminals operating simultaneously.”

The IGCN being marketed to government is not functionally different from the Spaceway services already being used by commercial customers. But the new service will cater to the user groups and virtual private networks established by government users.

“We are willing to work with governments to create the architecture they will need to communicate in an emergency,” Cook sad.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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