Space: The final sales opportunity

For Cisco it seems the world really is not enough. The company's head of space initiatives claims the cost of satellite communications could be cut by convincing space agencies to adopt reusable technology

Space may be the final frontier, but for Cisco it's also an untapped market. Rick Sanford, the company's exotically titled director of space initiatives, claims that the market around satellite communications, and their application to the defence industry, could be worth $1.4tn over the next ten years.

Head of the Global Defense and Space Group, a name that post-9/11 conjures up all sorts of images, Sanford claims space-based communications could be made a lot cheaper if the agencies involved adopted standards and technology from the terrestrial world.

Some of the immediate results of this push for reusability and cheaper components, he claims, could be cheaper satellite-based broadband services for those parts of the world, including rural areas of the UK, which will never receive terrestrial broadband access.

Cisco has already got a router in space, in a satellite built in conjunction with UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology. Successfully launched from Plesetsk in Russia last month, the satellite is part of a constellation of imaging and communications spacecraft built to aid emergency relief agencies: the Cisco router is part of a testbed for space-borne mobile IP applications.

ZDNet UK talked to Cisco's Rick Sanford about space networks.

So what does Cisco really think it can do to drive down the cost of satellite communications and space technologies in general?
The systems that are built for space are customised for each individual mission or satellite launch and the non-recurring mission costs are borne by that mission alone. When Company A builds a satellite they may use some of those elements in the next programme but if MoD UK awards the next programme to Company B, there is very little reuse of the technology. So what we have said is that if we look at the commercial telecommunications market and we look at going from proprietary protocols to those that have been ratified through the IEEE and the ITF, we see a dramatic reduction in cost and a significant increase in the interoperability of disparate systems. What we are attempting to do is apply this same model to space.

Can you give any real-life examples to illustrate all this?
That brings us round to the launch which represents our first chance to put our money where our mouth is. The Mobile Access Router 3251 is a 3.73 inch by 3.73 inch, commercially shipping router; you can buy it off our price list today. That was small enough and a power consumption of 10 watts, to be feasibly to be deployed on board the UKDMC satellite.

Wasn't it adapted at all?
We had to remove the plastic connectors because they'd melt at 50 degrees C which is the temperature of sunlight in space, and we had to take the capacitors that had wet dielectric and replace it with dry so they wouldn't evaporate. But aside from that there was no further modification to any of the chips. We successfully passed the 10G shock test, and what in the space industry they call the shake and bake test -- baking it at 50 degrees and alternating it with -20 degrees -- and it ran just fine.

Why did a US company get involved with the UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) -- America is quite good at getting things in space isn't it?
America is good at getting things in space. However in the area of small satellites -- 100kg and less -- Surrey is the premier developer globally. Surrey did the interaction, they built an interface card for the router for power and communications through the satellite itself. Our intent is to test the viability of deploying standards-based hardware into space and that's interesting because that has been the whole modus operandi of Surrey from the beginning.

IP experimentation in space isn't new -- during Columbia's tragic last mission, its crew were carrying out research in this field. What's the overall aim of the specific tests being carried out on this mission?
IP experiments have been flying in space for a long time -- each one of Surrey's satellites already uses IP. What is different here is that we're flying Cisco's Internet operating system version 12.2, and we're testing all the protocols, not just IP. We'll find out the performance envelope for each of them -- when does it start to work, when does it stop, when does it peak, what's the low performance point. Then we are going to publish that to the world, everyone in the space world from academia to developers and mission operators.

If we are going to develop standards for space -- ratified by the IEEE -- we need to do some experimentation that is not tied to a specific mission.

How could the conditions in space affect the performance of IP protocols and specifically the Cisco router?
There are base shifts and time shifts, and then there is the Doppler effect in space. It's also the distance and delay requirements. This is only a low Earth orbit satellite, when you are in geo-stationary orbit the delays are higher, but there are still some unique conditions.

The satellite passes around the Earth once every 93 minutes, talking in turn to Surrey's 11 ground stations around the world. As it comes in view it has to say, "Hello, I'm here," transmit its data, and leave. Maintaining contiguous communications, while the router functions with mobile IP protocol and  the like, presents a unique challenge.

Are there enough satellites being launched for Cisco to be interested in this market?
Cisco doesn't believe there's a huge market for routers in space, but we do believe there is a significant market terrestrially for the associated ground infrastructure.

The reason we are doing this is to engender networking in space. We believe by making the investment to deploy routers on board satellites using terrestrially available protocols and hardware, we'll open a new terrestrial market, for the equipment that needs to communicate with space-based systems.

So what kind of applications are we actually talking about here?
Those you'd use on a daily basis -- voice, video, data, a lot of those things you can already do via satellite. We think efficiency will increase, just as we saw on the ground when we moved from circuit-switched to packet networks.

Do you think that driving down the cost of space-based systems is going to lead to a greater competition between satellite and wireless systems?
I don't know that compete is the right word -- I think compliment is better. If we look at the UK today, it's got unique characteristics. There's 70 percent geographic coverage with the fibre infrastructure, so broadband access, notionally should be available to just about everyone. When you do the analysis though, there are 3.5 million qualified business users with broadband requirements who will never have access to that fibre infrastructure -- it's simply cost prohibitive to put that infrastructure to where those users are located. The last mile delivery of broadband services, or remote delivery to those areas where there isn't an established infrastructure, are all target focus areas.

How is this going to affect current satellite-based broadband providers?
Certainly, it has the potential to reduce costs. More importantly, the way the services are provided now will be different -- the router will be on board the satellite optimising use of the satellite constellation utilisation and the link to the broadband access points.

What led Cisco to create a group focused on defence and space?

We asked ourselves: "Where would we like to make an investment that would be a sustainable market and a growth market for us?" The Global Defence and Space group grew out of that over a period of two years.

The effort predates the telecom crash and is something John Chambers, our CEO, has been thinking about for quite some time now. In the areas of enterprise communication, we had a fairly good market penetration but in the area of C4I -- Command, Control, Communication, Computers and Intelligence -- in weapons and defence systems and in space -- we had basically zero percent market share. That's in a global market which will be worth $1.4tn over the next ten years.

What made Cisco want to move into an area with so little previous company expertise?
Commanding the launch of a weapons platform or talking to a satellite -- the fundamental requirements are basically the same as in any communications environment. We said: "Why haven't we been able to participate in this?" The answer is quite simple. A 19-inch rack mount box from Cisco doesn't fit very well on board a tank or a Humvee. The capabilities to support communications are there, the user demand is there: defence ministries around the world are asking: "How do we leverage commercial off-the-shelf kit to the greatest extent possible?"

So did you have any expertise in the defence area prior to two years ago?
We did in defence in enterprise communication but not in the weapons platforms or the C4I systems area.

What do you define as a weapons platform?
I'm more aware of the US systems than the UK but for example a Patriot missile battery or the Joint Strike Fighter.

Did September 11 affect your decision to target the defence industry more heavily?
I get that question every time I have a discussion and the frank answer is no. The frank answer is that we were looking at this well before that. But it absolutely helped catalyse the decision to move forward in this area.

Defence departments and ministries around the world are always looking to enhance their functionality. We have seen keen interest from MoD UK in the results of the recent launch. Space represents one of the first true macro areas of convergence. It's a convergence of technologies, missions, companies and frankly of countries. Armies today go to war as part of a coalition, they barely go to war alone, so everyone is looking at the need to do a better job of providing communications with troops.