Inmarsat to launch satellites for broadband services

Inmarsat will begin launching its new generation of satellites, offering global broadband coverage.

Inmarsat, the satellite company that provides roaming communications services to maritime vessels, military units and aircraft, is preparing to launch a new generation of satellites that will allow it to offer a wider range of global high-speed voice and data offerings.

The first of three Inmarsat I-4 satellites is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, next Thursday, and will be the largest commercial satellite in the sky, company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Sukawaty said in an interview Tuesday.

I-4 is the fourth-generation of Inmarsat satellites, and will be the backbone of the company's Broadband Global Area Network, offering at least 10 times the communications capacity of the current network. The new satellites will allow the company to offer data speeds of up to 432K bits per second for uses such as video-on demand, video conferencing, phone, e-mail, LAN, Internet and intranet services, it said.

The new services will come online by early 2005, after the launch of the second I-4 satellite later this year, Sukawaty said. There is no set date for the launch of the third I-4 satellite since it is mostly redundant and will only be sent up after the first two satellites are tested, he said. The initial pair will cover 90 percent of the globe, omitting the poles, he said.

With the new network comes smaller and cheaper mobile terminals, although older versions can access the I-4 satellites through software upgrades, Sukawaty said. A new mini-terminal costs in the range of US$2,000 to US$5,000, for example.

The I-4 network will be compatible with third-generation (3G) cellular systems, which will allow Inmarsat and partners to offer a new in-flight Internet and voice service called Swift Broadband, Sukawaty said. Swift Broadband, expected on aircraft by the end of 2006 or early 2007, will offer travelers broadband connections and allow them to use their GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones on planes, he said. It will take on other in-flight services such as The Boeing Co.'s Connexion by Boeing service.

Inmarsat already provides services to over 50 percent of long-haul aircraft, Sukawaty said.

The airline industry is one of the company's largest customers but its main clients are the military and governments. "You'd be hard pressed to find a government that doesn't use our services," Sukawaty said.

Inmarsat satellites are used for peaceful communications, such as offering links between military units, but still require a high level of security, he said. The company has its headquarters and satellite control room in downtown London, but has a mirrored site at an undisclosed location in the north of the city, which offers complete redundancy.

The maritime sector also represents big business for the company, represent some 50 to 60 percent of its network traffic, according to Sukawaty. Inmarsat began in 1979 as an intergovernmental agency created to provide maritime safety and distress services. It was privatized in 1999.

"We take security very seriously because we know lives depend on it. People need to be able to make distress calls at sea," he said.

Other frequent users are journalists who need to connect and do reports in remote places, and aid agencies that set up communication centers in stricken areas, Sukawaty said.

While satellites are focused on providing global roaming and remote coverage, Inmarsat's next generation of satellites are also built to concentrate coverage on high-traffic areas using spot beams. Each satellite has over 200 spot beams covering a 250-mile terrestrial area, Sukawaty said.

The satellites business runs in six-year cycles from the design and launch of equipment and services, so the new generation has been in the works for some time, Sukawaty said. The satellites themselves have a 14-year lifecycle, after which they are launched into a graveyard orbit in space.

With its long history and 3G plans, that's the one orbit that Inmarsat looks like its hoping to avoid.

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