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The Router from Outer Space

Written by Tim Burke

“Internet Routing... In... Spaaaaace!” I added the echo for some cool sci-fi effect. That’s what you are probably thinking anyway when you hear about anything happening high above the clouds and out beyond our atmosphere. But before you start envisioning the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its menacing computer HAL, let’s be completely accurate about the new space-age communications technology we are talking about. It’s not mean at all. It’s nice. In fact it has a cute, friendly nickname. Meet IRIS.

IRIS actually stands for Internet Routing In Space, but if we just say IRIS we get a personality. Someone who we can rely on in times of trouble and who won’t get dropped, whose signal won’t weaken or crash. Back in December, Cisco announced the results of the latest Internet Routing in Space (IRIS) testing, marking the first-ever software upgrade of an Internet Protocol (IP) router aboard a commercial satellite while in orbit. In addition, the company completed the industry’s first Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) call made without the use of any terrestrial infrastructure to route the call.

This call was long distance, to say the least. It brought a voice through space. Using a communications satellite rotating above the earth, we got a glimpse of the future. Sci-fi lovers notwithstanding, it was—not ET phoning home, but, in fact—IRIS calling!

Greg Pelton, Senior Director, Cisco Internet Routing in Space, said this about the new IT technology: “Cisco’s IRIS initiative is converging satellite and ground networks into a unified platform that delivers a rich set of services to users. It extends the same Internet protocol-based technology used to build the worldwide web into space.” The company’s long-term goal is to route voice, data and video traffic between satellites over a single IP network in ways that are more efficient, flexible and cost effective than is possible over today’s fragmented satellite communications networks. And it sounds like they are well on their way to making that connection, one which will be truly global in every sense.

With such a lofty goal, aiming for the stratosphere, so to speak, Pelton told us something about the technology’s recent history. “The initiative includes the Cisco 18400 Space Router, a radiation-tolerant IP router for satellite and related spacecraft,” he said. “The first space router was launched on-board Intelsat 14, a geostationary communications satellite. The Space Router was successfully tested by the U.S. Department of Defense during the first half of 2010. Users experienced a true mobile network, one that enables them to connect and communicate how, when and where they want, and that continuously adapts to their needs without a reliance on a pre-defined, fixed infrastructure.”

“Recently,” he noted, “we announced that our partner TCS will be offering service to their customers via the Space Router on Intelsat 14. This is the next step in the evolution of IRIS.” The question you want to know right now is: Can this space-age communications technology, that routes phone calls from space, be used to serve public safety?

Pelton explained that, “Law enforcement is a customer that has critical needs for communication. They cannot anticipate where or when a situation will arise so the network must be able to deliver communication services on demand, instantly. IRIS extends the on-demand service delivery model to include satellite communications. Bandwidth can be allocated to the most critical needs of our customers.”

Security is another important aspect of law enforcement. Pelton said, “IRIS extends the terrestrial security policies and firewalls to the satellite components of the network as well. With a Space Router on board and the addition of inter-satellite links, it is possible to route traffic between satellites, not just to users on the ground. These cross-links provide better reliability and more sophisticated services to users. In this architecture, a small number of space routers could provide a resilient network backbone in space. This backbone could augment terrestrial networks and retain Internet connectivity even in the event of fiber cuts or natural disasters. This space network is not independent of the Internet but a natural extension of the Internet.” Analyst John Mazur with the international technology consultancy, Ovum, said IRIS takes IP ubiquity to a whole new level and that with a few more IRIS launches, IP will be available anywhere, anytime on the planet, although bandwidth may be limited.

According to Pelton, Cisco has designed IRIS as a commercial product and is available to both civil and government customers to enable access to the Internet anytime, anywhere and from any device. Internet Routing in Space is a natural fit for the mobile law enforcement environment.

Where does Pelton see IRIS space router technology fitting in the public safety/law enforcement IT environment? “The vision behind IRIS is to converge satellite and ground networks into a unified service delivery platform. This can be a powerful solution for public safety, first responders and defense applications because it allows better collaboration and access to network services in congested and contested environments.” “The technology has the potential to transform how military and public safety users employ IP-based network services to accomplish missions. IRIS testing has enabled us to explore the potential of this technology as we look to expand our customer offering, particularly in areas that often require peer-to-peer communication and the rapid transfer of data, such as crisis management situations, remote medical emergencies and mobile military operations.”

The key benefit of the space router, especially as it would pertain to public safety professionals, simply put, is summed up by Pelton this way: “The power of IRIS is in how it takes all of the capabilities and benefits that exist in the terrestrial Internet and allows them to be used over satellite networks. It makes satellites an intelligent part of the overall network, rather than just passive repeaters of radio signals. But more importantly, it lets the end user take advantage of the reach of satellite bandwidth without needing to deal with the complexities of satellite access.”

According to Cisco literature, the shorter radio frequency path increases transponder utilization. The software on the Cisco 18400 Space Router and on-board modem can be upgraded in orbit, which increases flexibility. This is a radiation-tolerant IP router for satellite and related spacecraft. Pelton went on to indicate that as of yet IRIS has not been used by law enforcement in the field. The company has been focusing its early testing with service providers and satellite operators who can provide the managed IRIS service to public safety organizations.

However, the firm has already responded to a medical emergency when it had an opportunity to use IRIS to provide support for the Haiti relief effort. Together with some partners, the firm set up Telepresence in Haiti and in Miami. A number of injured children were airlifted to the University of Miami hospital for treatment after the earthquake. Unfortunately their families were not able to travel with them so the company used IRIS and Telepresence to let families see each other across that distance. Telepresence is a tool for business collaboration and is equally valuable to bring families closer together.

Sensing this technology could be useful for commanders and first responders dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, this reporter asked about ways IRIS could be put to use in the future helping public safety professionals handle widespread emergency situations? Pelton discussed a scenario where the technology could apply to emergency workers responding to a large-scale natural disaster.

“If the terrestrial infrastructure is destroyed,” he said, “you can’t get a cell phone signal to save your life–or anyone else’s. The hurricane, earthquake or flood has leveled cellular towers for miles. What do you do? With IRIS, the satellite can provide voice service for emergency workers and connect police with the fire department with the hospital, all through the satellite. No traditional telephone network is required to route the call.”

This space-age IT tech is in demo mode, but for how long? Pelton mentioned that the next big milestone for IRIS is moving from testing to full commercial service on Intelsat 14, which is happening this year. “We have pent-up demand for a production IRIS service and it is important to get this capability into the hands of the customers who need it. We continue to work with industry partners to introduce proven networking standards into proprietary satellite systems, and we are in discussions with a number of customers that should result in the sale and launch of future Space Routers.”

The futuristic thing about the space phone is the astronomical upside it could bring to making a simple call. “We are at a tipping point in the industry when satellite functionality can be defined by software rather than hardware,” Pelton summed up. “Think about how different your cellular phone is from the old rotary dial phones we used to have in our homes. The old phone just made telephone calls, while the new phone takes pictures, plays games, surfs the Web, sends text messages, and can still makes calls. This difference is software. Over the coming years, IRIS will drive similar changes to satellite networks, and it should be pretty exciting.”

Tim Burke is a freelance writer, editor, graphic designer and photographer. trb4320@yahoo.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2011

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