By Shankar Sharma
Inmarsat has a new satellite orbiting the Indian Ocean. The satellite, which will cover the Middle East, is just the first step in the company’s strategy to take communications technology to a higher level.
The ballet of the spheres has welcomed a new comer pirouetting its way above the Indian Ocean. That newcomer is the Inmarsat-4 satellite. Joining the plethora of man-made satellites accompanying the moon, Inmarsat-4 was launched with much fanfare from Cape Canaveral, USA, using an Atlas V rocket. As the name denotes, it represents the fourth generation of satellites from the UK-based mobile satellite communications operator. The satellite weighs 5959kg and it has an expected lifespan of 13 years.
Covering the Middle East region, the satellite will deliver a 3G-compatible broadband data service to mobile users. A second satellite is also penciled for launch later in the third quarter of 2005, which will be located over the Atlantic Ocean and cover the Americas, with a third remaining on earth as a spare.
That, however, is just the beginning. The latest launch plays an important role in Inmarsat’s plan to unveil a new Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service this year. According to Inmarsat’s COO Michael Butler, BGAN will cement the company’s leadership for the next decade and-a-half. “This represents a quantum leap,” he states. “The satellites are the most capable satellites we’ve ever launched.”
BGAN is an internet protocol (IP) and circuit-switched service that offers voice telephony and a range of high-bandwidth services. These include internet and intranet solutions, BlackBerry, local area network (LAN), video on demand, video-conferencing, fax, e-mail and telephone — all at speeds of up to 432kbit/s. “This is a data rich proposition that can meet with end user demand wherever they go,” explains Butler, pointing out its relevance to end users in the Middle East. “The [Middle East] is such a wide area and covers such diverse needs,” he says.
Moreover, BGAN offers greater capability and is more simplified than existing 3G technologies. Inmarsat believes the Middle East represents a huge potential market for the next phase of digital revolution. “Twenty years ago, manufacturers marketed cellular phones purely for business,” explains Christopher McLaughlin, vice-president of corporate and investor communications at Inmarsat. “The same message is being touted for BGAN right now. Once in use, BGAN terminals could really kick off in the mass market,” he adds.
Regional BGAN is a high-speed satellite IP modem operating at speeds of up to 144 kbps — more than twice the speed of many GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) terrestrial systems. It is also the first time that such speeds have been possible from lightweight, portable satellite terminals. The system is operational within 99 countries, spanning the Middle East; the Indian subcontinent; North, Central and West Africa and Europe. To many, it represents a cost-efficient option due to its “always on” quality, meaning that end users only pay for sent and received data, rather than for the entire connectivity time.
With BGAN, end users are able to enjoy the same level of connectivity that they have at their desks. They can surf the web, send e-mail and transfer a whole host of data from anywhere within the satellite footprint. Furthermore, they can gain access to corporate and broadband networks. Enterprises and independent observers alike are touting BGAN as being especially beneficial for government, media and international aid organisations.
Inmarsat boasts a proud tradition of working in the maritime sector, thanks primarily to its spot beam technology. The company recently helped provide satellite communications for yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur in her recent solo round-the-world expedition. Enterprise users witness these advantages in abundance. Construction, oil& gas, banks and businesses that operate either in remote areas away from conventional fixed or wireless communication have the benefit of Inmarsat’s solutions. In addition, employees who travel to such environments can obtain access to the communications afforded to them back in their respective offices.
“End users see this as an extension of their business centre. If enterprises are sending people out, they will have the same levels of connectivity,” explains McLaughlin. This view is echoed by Butler, who believes this is critical in the Middle East region, which he regards as ‘of strategic and commercial importance’ to the company. He points out that Inmarsat has a centre in Dubai acting as the hub for all its services in the Indian Ocean region.
The Inmarsat-4 satellite is 60 times more powerful and possesses 20 times greater capacity than its predecessors. When twinned with the Atlantic launch, greater BGAN capabilities will be available to provide increased IP data over a shared 144knit/s channel for enterprises— covering 85% of the earth’s surface from geo-stationary orbit. Built by EADS Astrium, it is part of a US$ 1.5 billion, eight-year development of Inmarsat’s next-generation satellite network. “The world has just got a little smaller,” explains Andrew Sukawaty, CEO and chairman of Inmarsat. “We have created communications history,” he adds.
In addition to covering the Middle East region, Inmarsat-4’s scope encompasses Africa, central Europe, the Indian sub-continent, most of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Western Australia. “The satellite is one of the largest and most powerful commercial satellites ever launched, and will deliver unprecedented data speeds for a mobile satellite communications service,” comments Sukawaty.
However, until the second launch, Inmarsat-4 remains little more than a latent capability. It is nevertheless compatible with third generation standards. The company is in the process of looking at potential distribution partners in the Middle East. “We have had concessions,” concedes Butler. “But interest will grow when the satellite technology is fully there and has been proven.”
Approximately 353,000 terminals were registered to access Inmarsat’s service at the end of 2004. These in turn offer increased mobility and functionality. “People are only now coming to terms with the fact that you can have a 3-G data pool and broadband type speeds,” he says. “We will be able to target a wide market.” Currently, Inmarsat delivers its communications solutions through a network of over 400 distributors and service providers to end users in around 170 different countries. Partners in the fields of equipment manufacture, software provision and systems integration also support the company with their portfolio of services. “We provide the capability and we provide the terminals,” states Butler.
Standard systems are connected straight on to the global network, with end users possessing their own telephone number for use of BlackBerry and cellular phones. “It is not only mobile communications,” says Samer Halawi, Inmarsat’s regional director for the Middle East and Africa. “Everything one needs to connect globally is provided by the system. We believe there is a [huge] market for this in the Middle East, ” he adds.
However, it has to be noted that all current regional BGAN users have to transition the new satellite when prompted by either Inmarsat directly or through its distribution partner. It is anticipated that there will be a one-month period following the transition announcement for users to perform the upgrade. The company stresses though that software upgrade to the satellite IP modem is ‘simple’.
Once fully in place, Inmarsat’s ambitious projects will result in a new generation of communications technology for end users. When the second Inmarsat-4 is operating in geostationary tandem with its counterpart, customers can expect greater functionality and mobility with BGAN, as well as integrated voice and data capability.