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Phone Home: Cisco Makes First Space-Routed IP Call

Cisco has taken two significant steps in space-based communications, with the first-ever upgrade of an IP router aboard a commercial satellite while in orbit, and the first voice over IP call made from a satellite that did not require any ground-based infrastructure to route the call.

The technology marks advances on two fronts: First, it means that satellite communications may become smoother, faster and more reliable, eliminating with the need for ground relays. It also shows that satellites can be updated, meaning companies won't have to launch new ones into orbit every time they want to improve the technology.

"The trigger point for this announcement is that we have uploaded a new software release into the router that is on the satellite," said Greg Pelton, general manager of Cisco's Internet Routing In Space (IRIS) program. "It contains a bunch of new features that are features of our ground products that are now available in space."

The router upgrade and VOIP call were made using the IRIS router aboard Intelsat’s IS-14 satellite stationed above the Atlantic ocean.

The call was made on Oct.13, 2010 from a trailer in a parking lot in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, to a conference room inside the building by engineers in the Cisco Network Operations Center.

Under current technology, satellite data signals must be routed through a terrestrial hub, producing what is called a "double hop" that increases the time it takes for signals to reach their destinations. IRIS eliminates the double hop and provides seamless networking capability, similar to normal Earth-based networks, through a router in a satellite.

"One of the important differences with IRIS compared with traditional satellites is IRIS is a software-defined platform," Pelton said. "In history, satellites have been configured out of hardware. Once they were launched you couldn't change them, they were configured for the life of the satellite. What they did, essentially, was take the signal from one place and bounce it down to another place. What it was, essentially, was a big old circuit in space."

Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, called the Cisco project important. He said that it is similar to the program being done by Hughes Spaceway 3 but that Cisco takes satellite communications further than before.

"The Cisco service is not unique but from what I understand it is very advanced in breadth and capability," Suss said. "It doesn't matter where the IP is. It provides a capability and robustness better than what is out there."

Suss said having the commercial sector move into the realm of satellite communications was very important for the Defense Department, which has satellite capabilities but not on the scale that IRIS can potentially provide.

"It is a significant technology because of satellite services for the military, in particular," Suss said. "There is not adequate bandwidth in military satellites to address all their needs."

A lot of that has to do with video and applications that are important in analyzing data from battlefields as well as the ability to communicate seamlessly from the field.

"Having the commercial sector move to this sector is extremely important to the military," Suss said. "Bottom line, this a very important technology."

IRIS was first deployed on IS-14 on Nov. 23, 2009. The system was put through Joint Capability Technology Demonstrations testing through the last year and has been tested for commercial and government use since throughout 2010.

According to Cisco, IRIS improves latency and efficiency issues for VOIP, sending data packets with data applications, and distributes bandwidth on demand to improve performance in real-time video use. A radiation-resistant Cisco IP router cuts out the double hop signal and increases megabits per megahertz while having the ability to direct data straight from the satellite to numerous objects on the ground at once.

This can help troops or government officials on the ground by providing a secure supply of IP on- demand in rural areas without the use of a telecom transponder that could be geo-located or jammed. IRIS benefits IP ubiquity for use-case scenarios because it lacks a central infrastructure that inhibits other types of ground-based IP communication that must bounce from hub to hub.

"If I have some sort of situation where there is no terrestrial infrastructure, the telephone networks have been knocked out, that could be an emergency or disaster," Pelton said. "An earthquake, a fire, a hurricane, flooding, or it could be in a war zone where I am deploying troops and there is just no infrastructure that exists on the ground. As long as they have satellite connectivity and they are using the IRIS service they can make phone calls between each other. And they can make phone calls to other networks through the satellite without having any infrastructure on the ground to support those phone calls. All that functionality is now in space."

Essentially, Cisco is trying to take the Internet to space. The IRIS router is fundamentally no different from a ground-based IP router in terms of what it can process. IRIS can handle a Unified Communications Manager, multicast data and video from the satellite to multiple targets, handle IPv6 as well as mobile IP.

"Because we are re-using the same technologies, the same products, the same capabilities that the rest of the network is built out of we are able to dramatically lower the cost -- the capital cost, the operational cost," Pelton said.

Pelton said Cisco is trying to take satellite communications, which have historically been a stand-alone industry, into the integrated global network. Through this, te company hopes to add a new product to their collection and tap into a market that as yet is still in its nascent stage.

"Satellite networks are one of the last few communications networks that has not broadly adopted Internet technology," Pelton said.

For now, military and government operatives in need of flexibility in their network are the most likely users for IRIS.

In an Operational Utility Assessment done by the U.S. Army Missile Defense Battle Lab, operational manager Mike Florio reported that an IRIS-like capability is needed to improve information sharing among edge users in net-centric operations.

In a slide presentation, Florio said that IRIS will improve cooperation among JIIM partners and make them more effective at countering terrorism and other criminal activities.

View the PowerPoint presentation here

However, there are some challenges, too, Florio noted. For one, it will be necessary to determine jurisdictional issues from a law enforcement perspective and to work out more-detailed agreements to develop protocols for operational support during situations that require more than one partner to respond.

"The most significant technical issues have to do with developing the information interfaces between U.S. and foreign information systems. In addition to detailed information-sharing arrangements, a set of commonly accepted terminology and standards must be developed to ensure the accuracy and mutual understanding of information that is shared," Florio wrote in the slide presentation.

In government testing IRIS was configured to have a maximum throughput of 25 megabits/sec with a top use of 5 megabits/sec. The overall potential could be a lot higher (110 megabits/sec according to Pelton) but in testing the government wanted modems that were more ubiquitously in use today.

Yet, IRIS is different from other satellites in that it can use its bandwidth "on-demand." Historically, if 25 megabits/sec of throughput was available but only 5 megabits/sec was being consumed by one user, then the other 20 megabits/sec would be stranded. With IRIS, the entire throughput can be used by multiple users.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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