A View from The Top at Silicon Valley Space Week 2023

Ken Peterman Shares Key Insights During Fireside Chat with Former Chief Architect of U.S. Air Force

A packed house at Silicon Valley Space Week caught a candid deep-dive discussion between two innovative thought leaders who’ve helped shape global connectivity and technology landscapes for decades.

Ken Peterman, Comtech’s President and CEO, and Preston Dunlap, CEO of consulting firm Arkenstone Ventures, sat down to share their key insights and experiences on the main stage at the annual event in Mountain View, CA.

The two kicked off the chat by revealing the motivation behind their early career paths and choices. “I went to college in engineering and came out wanting to be involved where all the cool stuff was happening, and that was the defense industrial base,” Comtech CEO Ken Peterman recalled. “At that time, we were inventing mobile networking, GPS, satellite communications, and cybersecurity. These things needed to be done so our young men and women in uniform could be safer and more effective in the execution of their missions.”

As Ken noted, at that time, the U.S. government served as the system integrator and the leader in designing, developing, and deploying new innovative technologies. During the second half of Ken’s career, the commercial sector began leading the way in innovation.

Bringing innovation to the Department of Defense (DoD) was a daunting challenge for the commercial sector that found and still finds itself limited by government acquisition processes that are predicated on a process of invention, not assessment, adoption, and deployment. “It’s really not a framework that thrives in an environment where the commercial market is the technology leader, where the commercial market is moving at ten times the pace of government,” noted Ken.

“In fact, some in government, because of the proprietary nature of technologies on the commercial side and the pace that it’s moving, they’ve lost touch with where the state-of-the-art really is in some cases,” said Ken. “Government’s role in exploiting commercial innovation to help to drive transformational change is an important one.”

Over the last 20 years, Ken embraced the nimbleness of the commercial sector to fund, develop and deploy new technologies much faster than before. “Today, the commercial sector is putting innovative technologies to work for the everyday citizen much faster, and it’s fantastic,” said Ken.

After a couple of early stints with tech startups in software and data centers, Preston Dunlap moved into the government space. He ultimately worked in the DoD supporting five Secretaries of Defense, including Secretary Robert Gates and the late Ash Carter. Most recently, he served as the first-ever chief architect officer for the Air Force and Space Force, before departing the government sector about a year ago.

“That’s provided just an amazing opportunity to partner with great minds who think commercially about how to enable extended and life-saving missions,” Preston explained. “I have the privilege of helping many technology companies and private equity firms invest in technology categories of interest, including space.” Preston then moved into asking a series of questions to delve into many of the drivers and advancements behind Ken’s passion for democratizing access to connectivity, new blended communications capabilities, and trends across the broader technology industry.

You Have Dedicated a Large Part of Your Career to This Technology Field – So Why Space?

For Ken, “It’s not about connectivity, it’s what connectivity enables,” he said. “Early on, I wanted to create capabilities using technology that would give men and women in uniform an edge. The last 20 years of my career have been all about the value creation that connectivity can enable for customers and end users – everything from downloading a boarding pass or a hotel room key to online banking and movie tickets. There’s real value creation there,” noted Ken.

But what Ken has grown most passionate about is “connecting the unconnected on a global scale and democratizing access to data and new technologies.” Connectivity enables everyone to see how others on the planet live, he explained. “They can have access to education, insights into medicine, and this access causes geopolitical change. A grandmother may see little change, but she knows there’s a better way for her grandkids. Access to connectivity and communications technologies create geopolitical action that makes the world a better place. That inspires me, and Comtech is leading the way there.

What are some of the guideposts you’ve seen that have gotten us where we are today?

“I’ve been part of some big things,” said Ken, pointing to the advancements from earlier satellites that had 10, 12, 15 gigabits per second of capacity and “were architected like a television broadcast tower.”

Then along came Viasat and Ken’s work with Mark Dankberg focused on new satellite architectures built like cellular base stations. With this change, “you now have hundreds of thousands of subscribers on a satellite and capacity in the hundreds of gigabits per second – capacity that can move east to west to meet customer needs at critical business hours throughout the day,” explained Ken.

Today’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations are completely changing everything when it comes to ground infrastructure, he noted. “With LEO, you’re replacing the entire constellation every four or five years, as the propellants are fully spent in that timeframe. If you buy the ground infrastructure the same way the Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) providers did previously, by the time you’re at generation 2 or generation 3 of your LEO constellation, that ground infrastructure becomes old news because it’s not changing. It’s static.”

Ken suggested the keys to success revolve around reviewing how the new ground infrastructures must be procured and architected differently. “Those are the kinds of critical decisions we’re in the middle of today at Comtech.”

Have you seen your inspirational vision of space and connectivity come to fruition or is that still to come?

“A lot of the panel discussions at this important conference often focus on the how. How do we get the supply chain, manufacturing, and deployment right? The how’s are hard,” explained Ken. Engineers are extremely attentive to the how, he said – how we’re getting it done and how we can do it better.

“The how’s are interesting and critical to success. But I found out early on that I’m more of an imagineer, and a businessman who looks at challenges through a different lens – the lens of the customer,” Ken explained. “The customer wants to be connected to multiple networks simultaneously. They want to be connected to geospatial networks as well as communications networks, and they want to draw insight from that connectivity to create better and faster decisions.”

Looking through that customer lens, you start to work the problem differently, Ken shared. “For example, we’re trying to anticipate the convergence of different orbital regimes into a single LEO, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), GEO subscription network,” he said, pointing to the highly anticipated convergence of space and terrestrial. “And when 6G comes along, it may very well be a common waveform that we start to implement across terrestrial and space. I also think you’re going to see a convergence of space communications and space geospatial, where those are very different market segments today.”

And when you put up a constellation of tens of thousands of satellites, it doesn’t take very long before you ask, ‘why do all those satellites have to be homogeneous,’ Ken added. “Because if we did ask that question, we could actually move away from building dumb pipes to having smart networks that could harvest the data that resides in the network and provide monetized insight to the customer,” he said, outlining the value creation for customers.

Ultimately that value translates into customer successes such as improved yield in smart agriculture, “so we move to insights at the edge and smart networks that harvest data across the network to provide new and unprecedented customer value,” he explained.

How much should companies care about potentially nefarious actors and security threats in space?

“That’s a great question, and it’s one of the reasons we’re changing the way we do business. We reorganized our business at Comtech. We had separate businesses that sold modems, and one that sold amps, and another that sold antennas,” Ken said, outlining the recent One Comtech transformation. “LEO providers don’t need to keep up with a bunch of disparate businesses, they need a ground infrastructure partner who can enable their constellation today and tomorrow. The ground infrastructure must evolve and change affordably and rapidly as the space segment changes, as cyber threat vectors change, and as subscriber usage patterns adjust.”

Just like the smartphone has multiple network connectivity over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cellular, LEO ground infrastructure enables network orchestration and multi-network routing. Ken explained that in the event of cybersecurity threats, “the ground system could provide cloaking or the masking of some of the message traffic.” He described how today’s ground providers must be able to move beyond just selling a modem, an amp or antenna to providing seamless, secure, smart systems that empower space segment.

“We’re adapting Comtech’s network agnostic dynamic cloud platform from our terrestrial business to the satellite environment, because it will become the core of our virtual ground infrastructure where a variety of critical apps reside – apps such as network orchestration, cybersecurity, transmission security,” Ken said. “This is certainly changing the way we think about ground architecture.”

How do you think about creating innovative change that requires risk inside a publicly traded company?

Ken pointed to Comtech, on the heels of a transformative restructuring designed to meet the evolving demands for ground infrastructure in LEO and new space. “LEO providers and new space companies want to buy ground infrastructure differently,” he said. “We also restructured our terrestrial and wireless business, because 9-1-1 calls, for example, aren’t going to be human-to-human forever. Your connected device, whether it’s your Fitbit, your iPhone, or your smoke alarm, is going to make that emergency call, and we must be able to service that call, to geolocate that device.”

Comtech, Ken said, is keenly and intimately focused on solving the customers’ challenges and creating more value for the customer than anyone else can. “We’ll empirically assess or measure that value created as a currency, and we will monetize that value creation. We will share in that value creation, and we’ll be paid based on that value,” he explained. “We focus our investment on solving that problem in innovative ways, using technology as the enabler. It’s a very different decision and financial calculus than making automobiles.”

What are the tremors and tectonic shifts that are happening from a marketplace perspective?

There is a myriad of incredible advancements in the works today, but Ken is especially interested in the move from ubiquitous connectivity to “connectivity when and where I need it.” “We used to want to be connected all the time, but I don’t anymore,” Ken told the audience. “When I turn to my phone and I open an app, I want a network instantiated just for me. It has the optimum speed, latency, capacity of whatever app I want whenever I want it.”

When it’s time to go to sleep or the user turns away from the phone, “I want that network stood down, except for the lifeline app, because I don’t want to pay for it when I’m not using it. That will require a network that has the attributes uniquely suited to support what I’m doing right now, and that’s all I want to pay for,” Ken said, calling the capability a game changer.

Such a platform could be satellite, terrestrial, or blended hybrid connectivity architectures, according to Ken. “My point is we’re going to move toward a private network environment and the companies that have the technology and business savvy to do that first will be the winners,” said Ken. “That may cause or stimulate a race to the bottom on cost per bit for geospatial, satellite communications, or terrestrial, but it’s going to change the game.”

Watch the full fireside chat here.

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