Rivals of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite communications are gaining attention from the Pentagon as Musk draws criticism for Starlink’s unavailability in contested areas like Ukraine.
Musk has threatened to cut off financial support for Starlink service in Ukraine, an essential communications tool to combat Russia’s invasion. The Defense Department, meanwhile, confirmed it’s looking for other satcoms to do business with.
One competitor to Starlink is Kymeta, a Bill Gates-funded company that has donated and sold its technology to Ukraine. Kymeta’s chief development officer Bill Marks said Musk’s threats to cut off service in Ukraine and limit availability in contested areas like Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 in a move seen by the UN as a violation of international law, were “egregious.”
“I’m sure there’s blood on his hands for that,” he said.
Starlink did not respond to several requests for comment.
Walter Berger, Kymeta president and co-CEO, said Gates’ continued interest in the company is due to the technology’s future role in “democratizing connectivity” and support of larger initiatives like fixing rural broadband silos.
The US military expected to see this kind of technology in 2027, Marks added.
“It’s disrupted them and they’re trying to figure out ‘How do you field that five years before we expected to see it?’,” he said. “And then you have commanders who are going, ‘I don’t care what you expected, I want them now.’”
Kymeta currently works with the DOD and is in talks with other NATO countries about its antenna that’s held up in various ground conflicts over the last two years, Marks said. The company positioning itself as a better and more reliable satcom provider than Starlink, a message aimed directly at the Pentagon.
A 2021 policy paper from the Mitchell Institute, an aerospace industry think tank, said satcom services could become “the backbone of DOD’s networks.” They are destined to become part of the Pentagon-wide Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, initiative to connect sensors and communication across all branches of the military.
“The reason the US military likes our technology is that if you were an adversary and you do something to compromise one of the satellites, our antenna will switch to another satellite. And it does it all within less than a second,” Marks said. “The soldiers would’ve never lost connectivity.”
The military agencies that Kymeta has spoken with want flexibility, redundancy, and security. Marks tells them that Kymeta is modular—it can hook up to low-earth orbit and geosynchronous equatorial orbit satellites as well as cellular networks. He makes a point of noting Starlink works as a single network system.
“The biggest difference between our terminals and the Starlink terminals, besides the fact that we would never shut them off, is our terminals work on the move,” Marks said.
Kymeta has classified and unclassified contracts with several Pentagon departments and civilian agencies. The federal government has reported more than $6.6 million in unclassified contracts with the company.
Kymeta also supports maritime and industrial vehicles used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and firefighters battling wildfires. The company announced a broadband partnership with OneWeb’s low-earth orbit satellite network. The LEO terminal is set to launch in early 2023.
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