Amid predictable headlines about the last frontier, IP communications is about to unshackle itself from the surly bonds of earth.
The US Department of Defense has contracted Intelsat to manage a three-year project, known as Internet Routing In Space (IRIS), to bring IP connectivity to satellites aloft. Space Systems/Loral will make the spacecraft, Cisco will do the networking software and avionics firm SEAKR will build the router for the first satellite, due for launch in Q1 2009.
Bringing down costs
The reason for doing so is simple enough. IP is eating everything on earth because of its low cost and robust architecture. The Pentagon, currently burning $6 billion a month in Iraq, wants to plug into that.
On-board switching is not new. In fact, on-board IP is not new - the British have been experimenting with it under a program called CLEO since 2002. Only the Americans can make it viable, of course. But they won't be able to do that with the custom-made switches they've been using aboard the shuttle.
So it's all about leveraging the scale of IP gear and networking to hook satellites and astronauts in space into the Internet grid.
It's interesting that, although a DoD program, one of the aims of IRIS is to make extra-territorial Internet commercially viable. A financial adviser has been engaged to find private equity investors who will set up a firm to develop the equipment.
At the end of the program, when IRIS is deployed commercially, the firm will own the gear and Intelsat will run the service.
Two other projects come to mind here. One is GPS, another Pentagon satellite-based initiative that is now available for commercial use. Whereas GPS was an accidental civilian success, it seems the DoD in this case has decided at the outset to try to monetize its product development.
The other is Iridium, the now ten-year-old idea of spanning the globe with satellites for ubiquitous mobile voice.
We know that Iridium, like peace and quiet on the morning train, was defeated by the mobile phone. But one thing it got right was the idea of network switching in the sky, avoiding the added expense and delay of routing to an earthbound gateway. The Iridium constellation, which is still in orbit and, finally, profitable, does that for its mostly voice traffic.
On-board processing has been a talking point among satellite players for some time now. It's not so much technically difficult, but it does require an in-orbit base of satellites through which to route calls. But it also has implications for satellites' limited power supplies.
For all the fascination of space, and warm words about IRIS being a step on the road to the interplanetary Internet, it's hard not to feel uneasy about this. This project merely confirms, as if there were any doubt, the further militarization of space.
The US Strategic Command 'sees the program as a path to more efficient communications between warfighters around the globe,' according to Intelsat.
Intelsat then goes onto make the analogy with ARPANET, the forerunner to the Net that was set up and funded by the DoD in the 1960s. The comparison is an appealing one, and for sure, like ARPANET, IRIS will bear the cost of solving some of the problems, and will help create a critical mass of IP-capable satellites.
But ARPANET was operating in that part of the galaxy with billions of potential users. Apart from a few wealthy space tourists, how many civilian emails is IRIS going to deliver in the next 40 years‾
In this security-obsessed era, the military logic is overwhelming. Chinese and Russian strategists as well as Americans are doubtless laying out their own plans to take warfighting into space.
Good luck to IRIS and the various warplanners around the world. The rest of us are left to reflect that, for all the happy notions about ICTs fostering peace and development, they are also the handmaiden of modern war.
Robert Clark is a Hong Kong-based technology journalist. His blog Electric Speech is at