Fill ‘er Up? SATCOM is Not a Commodity

“Bandwidth is like gasoline.” This is the unfortunate sentiment of many U.S. Government buyers and users of satellite capacity. In some cases it also consistent with the value proposition of industry resellers and integrators.

I first heard this unfortunate turn of phrase from a senior military officer about five years ago. He was making the point that the military Services and Agencies need to budget and plan for their satellite capacity in the same way they do the rest of their Operations and Maintenance requirements. Too often, he said, they just assume appropriate space segment resources will be available when needed. This stands in contrast to reality. Ask anyone who has sought out capacity with strict beam power and geographic coverage requirements—satellite bandwidth is not a commodity.

In recent years I have increasingly heard this expression ‘commodity bandwidth’ in reference to commercial satellite communications capacity. Beyond the natural aversion to having my space segment’s place in the communications value chain written down, the facts do not support this premise.

By definition—Wikipedia or Webster, it doesn’t matter—the term commodity is most commonly applied to products which do not differ appreciably from one source to another. Like petroleum or milk, like copper or electricity. Also, the supply of pure commodities can typically be increased upon demand (think OPEC). For this reason too, satellite bandwidth is not a commodity.

Why should we care as an industry if buyers perceive satellite bandwidth as a commodity? Because this leads to the type of environment where planning is overlooked and an important resource becomes constrained. The Department of Defense, in particular, needs to be wary. The world’s largest user of satellite capacity, the DoD does not attempt to forecast where their needs will be next year, and certainly not in five years.

Unfortunately, it takes three years to design, build, and launch new commercial capacity. This is light speed compared to national systems, which can typically take ten years. However, without some planning, both commercial operators and their government customers may discover the next theater is even more constrained than the current one.

So what is the solution for a partnership that requires one side to have crystal ball and the other to be a mind reader? How about some meaningful, actionable collaboration? Now that would be a truly rare commodity in the government SATCOM market.