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Router Merges Land and Space

It’s been talked about and in the planning stages for years. But for the first time, the “dial tone in the sky” has been advanced into use with enhanced capabilities via a software upgrade. Industry predicts that this step will lead to the ubiquitous use of communications via satellite.
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Connections

The Internet Router in Space successfully experienced its first software upload without a spacecraft or astronaut leaving the ground. As if they were adding new capabilities to earthbound computers, engineers updated the Internet Operating System software aboard the Intelsat-14 satellite as it hovered in space above the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, the router now offers capabilities that terrestrial users already enjoy, including unified communications, which was used to make the first voice over Internet protocol telephone call without the use of terrestrial infrastructure to route the call.

Greg Pelton, general manager, Internet Router in Space (IRIS) program, Cisco Systems Incorporated, says his company believes that the telecommunications market is a place of converging space and ground networks, and Cisco is trying to accelerate that process with IRIS. The company created the new space router, which was launched aboard Intelsat-14 in November 2009, as part of a Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD) supported by U.S. Joint Forces Command. Unlike traditional routers, it is a software-defined router, so capabilities can be changed more quickly and cost-effectively. “This makes the satellite part of the rest of the network,” Pelton explains.

Michael A. Florio, U.S. Army Space and Missile Battle Lab, took part in the demonstration and was impressed with IRIS’ potential. “The IRIS capability worked as advertised. From the perspective of the Joint Capability Technology Demonstration that we conducted, IRIS provided increased operational utility to the force. Specifically, IRIS provided increased connectivity and throughput to support collaboration and synchronization between remote forces afloat and on land. IRIS provided access to large data files, collaboration tools, and classified and unclassified VTC [video teleconferencing],” Florio says.

The JCTD on-orbit demonstrations and assessment showed that, as an initiative to provide greater access, IRIS will facilitate greater cooperation among joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational (JIIM) partners. IRIS access will enable JIIM partners to promote greater intelligence and operational cooperation, Florio states.

Pelton says the upgrade adds “a ton” of capabilities to IRIS. “We chose features we think are relevant for satellite networks, installed them, tested them and are now trying them out with customers,” Pelton relates.

The Unified Communications Manager Express capability will be particularly useful to the military and first responder personnel. It enables organizations to set up a command and control communications structure when land infrastructure is unavailable. All permissions for access to the network can be put into place and implemented as soon as they are needed.

Multicast is another of the added capabilities. This technology takes one flow of information, replicates it and distributes it to many users. It can be used with streaming video so that information that is collected from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can be directly distributed to warfighters in the field in real time. “It can send information on the same frequency, different frequency, different transponders, send it to Europe or Africa, too. That’s step one. Step two is that it can replicate traffic. So a video stream goes through the network to the people who want to look at it,” Pelton relates.

Traditionally, UAV video goes to headquarters where it is analyzed and distributed. “But the guys on the ground are in the middle of a situation, and it can take a long time to get that information to them. Now, that feed can be taken from a Predator, for example, and it can be sent to headquarters and warfighters at the same time,” he relates.

Although the IRIS upgrade adds many capabilities, at the JCTD stage it posed some challenges to the military, Florio says. “This first version of IRIS required operators to have experience in satellite communications and networking. Cisco was aware of this issue and did a lot of work by the end of the JCTD to reduce the burdens on front-line operators on provisioning terminals for satellite service and to ensure that the modem/router configurations had the correct boot files to access IRIS services,” he explains.

Although the benefits to the military and emergency personnel are evident, Cisco has bigger plans for the converged space-ground network: it will become the platform for a global service offering, Pelton reveals. Working with telecommunications service providers, the company could make access to satellite communications available to everyone.

On February 17, Telecommunications Systems Incorporated entered into an exclusive arrangement with Cisco to be the IRIS operator. TCS' launch of the Cisco IRIS-based services will increase the return on investment from satellite platforms and more bandwidth availability and security for land, sea and airborne platforms across four continents, TCS officials state. 

Florio is a bit more cautious in his evaluation of IRIS. “This first version of IRIS was a first step on a single satellite. As such, the JCTD did not answer the question of whether routing in space is better than routing on the ground and switching via satellites. IRIS has the promise of greater flexibility, but the data collected during the JCTD could not empirically prove that promise,” he states.