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Thu 21 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Satellite age

Satellite services are in demand as sectors operating beyond the reach of GSM networks boom.

Satellite services are experiencing robust demand as sectors that operate beyond the reach of GSM networks boom.

Despite tough competition from the rapid development of GSM networks, satellite voice and data services remain a high growth sector, with some analysts estimating the industry is growing by more than 10% a year. With demand from sectors such as mining and shipping showing no signs of abating, satellite communication appears to have plenty of growth potential.

Companies involved in the sector have certainly been quick to respond to this demand. Last month, UAE-based satellite operator Thuraya launched its third satellite, Thuraya-3, as part of a plan to expand its coverage in Asia, while Inmarsat, a UK-based satellite operator, revealed that it will also launch a new satellite in 2008, to consolidate its Pacific coverage and to complement new voice and data services.

By the first quarter of next year we will have a handheld service that will work on all three satellites, and we will also have a handheld service that will have a modernised handset with more capabilities. - Samer Halawi.

While demand for data services has been experiencing particularly strong growth, there has also been a steady growth in demand for mobile voice services.

As vice president of Inmarsat's operations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, Samer Halawi is well aware of the trend. Inmarsat, which has been involved in the satellite sector since 1979, is a relative newcomer to the voice handset sector. The company has traditionally earned most of its revenue from data services, but in the past year, it also moved into the handheld voice sector.

"Until this year we never had a handheld phone, we were always concentrating on more corporate units and the focus over the last decade has been on high speed data, because that market is growing in double digits while the market for hand held telephones is a consumable one," Halawi says.

Inmarsat launched its first hand held phone, with a version for land use and another for maritime for the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and parts of Europe - pitching the company more directly against one of its main rivals in the region, Thuraya.

"We introduced a new hand held satellite phone and the reason for this is that we wanted to complement our product offering so that our customers can have a one-stop-shop for all their mobile satellite communication needs.

Inmarsat currently has two latest generation "I4" satellites among its total of 11 satellites, and the company is planning to launch a third by the third quarter of 2008. Inmarsat's first two I4 satellites cover give coverage for about 85% of the world's surface, and the third satellite will allow the company to complement its coverage over the Pacific.

The I4 satellites will also be vital to Inmarsat's new handheld voice service. "We launched the hand held service over the first satellite, which covers the Middle East, most of Africa and most of Europe, and Asia up to Western Australia. That's the coverage that we have today," Halawi says. "However when we launched the service we started working on a programme to launch a full hand held service, and that will be available by the first quarter of 2009.

"By the first quarter of next year we will have a handheld service that will work on all three satellites, and we will also have a modernised handset with more capabilities. The experience of using an Inmarsat device, whether you are in Oregon, Chile or Dubai, will be the same.

Despite these developments, Halawi admits that while the overall voice sector is growing, it is also declining as a proportion of the companies business. "It decreases year on year. Today it is about 35%, a few years ago it was more like 50% so it has been decreasing steadily over the last few years," he says. "That is mainly because the demand for data has been increasing in double digits.

Inmarsat's customers include companies from various sectors, with maritime forming the bulk of the customer base. The sector is increasingly using e-commerce and email applications and many maritime clients also rely on data such as weather charts, and even information about which ports are paying the best rates for fish.
The media is also proving to be an important sector for Inmarsat. "This is a big data hungry sector because Inmarsat devices are used to broadcast live," Halawi says, adding that many news reporters for leading TV stations use Inmarsat technology for live reports.

You notice more stations are adopting that because it allows the broadcaster to report from anywhere. It is a small device the size of a laptop. It can be fixed up by one person without need for a technician," he adds.

Halawi puts overall year-on-year growth in the satellite communications sector at more than 10%, and cites African countries as being particularly strong markets. He also points to India as a potentially market. Furthermore, Africa and Latin American countries remain particularly strong markets for voice services.

Meanwhile, rival operator Thuraya, views Asia as a key market for expansion. Thuraya, which provides roaming mobile services via its satellite network - and through agreements with GSM operators - has a coverage area encompassing more than 150 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Europe.

Following the launch of Thuraya-3, the company intends to move into eastern Asia, a region that will more than double its coverage area. As one of the world's most densely populated regions, east Asia is also likely to become a particularly lucrative area for Thuraya.

"The expansion into Asia, which is planned next year, is a major strategic move for Thuraya, as it will double our coverage area with minimal impact to our operating costs," says Yousuf Al Sayed, CEO, Thuraya.

"We will be using the existing set up we have, with some offices in Asia to support our operation there. The technology is the same and we are going to repeat the successful technologies and develop new ones," he adds. "We think Asia Pacific is a promising market.

Thuraya is already in talks with potential partners in Asia, which it hopes will lead to tie-ups in the region that will allow it to launch its full complement of services, as well as some new services for sectors including maritime.

SATELLITE PHONES AND GSM: Turning competition into opportunityFor Maarten De Wit, a director at Oliver Wyman in Dubai, much of the growth being experienced by the region's satellite phone sector is due to ability of many satellite handset to roam on partner GSM networks, allowing for lower costs and better service.

Smaller handsets and lower prices for handsets and calls, is also contributing.

"Satellite phones can be complementary to GSM in areas where GSM investment does not make sense or GSM signal is and will likely remain weak - this includes a great deal of MENA desert and low population density areas, De Wit says.

He points to southern Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco; the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and western UAE, as well as mountainous regions and failed states, as some of the geographic areas driving of the sector.

Furthermore, satellite operators are unlikely to lose their core customers, who have few options but to use satellite devices. "First responders and other emergency services, alongside the military, will continue to use sat-phones because of the lack of or risk of destruction to GSM towers," De Wit says.

"Ships and planes will organically increase their use of satellite voice and data services and will likely never be covered by GSM networks. These customers are also likely to increase their use of data services as prices and operability improves.

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