Inmarsat, the 42-year-old British satellite operator that took itself private in a 2019 buyout, plans to spend $100 million over the next five years preparing to enter the increasingly competitive low-Earth-orbit market.
The company announced in late July that it will enter the arena to better serve mobility verticals, unveiling plans for at least 150 LEO spacecraft to complement its fleet in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits from 2026. Inmarsat plans to build a terrestrial 5G network in high demand areas to support its multi-orbit network Orchestra.
Although these plans require new regulatory licenses, Inmarsat already operates 14 satellites and has plans in place for adding five new GEO and two HEO spacecraft to its fleet.
Todd McDonell, global government president of
Inmarsat. Credit: InmarsatSpaceNews caught up with Todd McDonell, Inmarsat’s president of global government, to find out what Orchestra means for government customers that make up about a third of the company’s revenues.
How are you shaping Orchestra to meet future government mobility needs?
Particularly for governments, mobility is two things: It’s either to use on the move or move anywhere to use. This is because many people need to be able to simply go somewhere and connect.
For satellite comms today, it’s hard to cover a really high-density area of users, such as a busy airport, and when they all disperse you still need to maintain connectivity. LEOs have to deal with this because they are small platforms and can’t deliver high density in one location.
Orchestra is designed to deal with that because it has a terrestrial component based on 5G technology, the LEO component which means we can do lower latency connections, and then it still has the GEOs on top for support. It is important to ensure that we are able to deliver the required capability and capacity for each mobility customer. This means it requires those three legs.
What is changing in the government market that requires this multi-orbit approach?
In government today, everything is a node. Once upon a while, you would have an asset. A ship, plane, or vehicle. And you’d say “That’s my connectivity node.” As long as it can all get there, I’m fine.” Each person is now a node. All of them must be able communicate with each other, the vehicle, and beyond. This was originally a military concept, but it’s now being used in public safety, border protection, and emergency services.
In the military, you’re seeing small rectangular screens on a person’s forearm so they can get live updates directly to the person, and share them with each other. You can also receive updates directly from your vehicle or a feed from a UAV. All of these things need to be connected, which is why we need to be capable of providing more bandwidth and something smaller and lighter for people.
And that scale does multiply. Think about the large GEOs that we are building right now. They have huge amounts of capacity because we need to be capable of deploying mass capacity to a fleet. We are being asked to do more with that technology to allow us to shift the focus. All Kaband satellites are equipped with electronic steered arrays. It’s gone a long time since you could just do a beam layout and say “these are my beams. That’s how much capacity there is in a beam. That’s how many channels can you have.”
Now we’re turning on beams in front of an aircraft, at the speed of the aircraft, and turning them off behind it. The great thing about this is that we only use the bandwidth that’s necessary to support the asset. This leaves the remaining bandwidth free to support other assets.
The Australian Defence Force recently extended a contract to use Inmarsat’s satellites to 2027. Is that agreement a concession to Orchestra’s arrival in Australia?
Absolutely. They have a very exclusive contract with us. They have full access to all of our services, and they are able to pick up any new services. We also created a software platform that allows them to manage their use of our services. This gives them the ability control services using satellites they don’t own. It’s a novel idea.
Are you in talks to expand that model to other countries?
Yes, there are conversations with other governments about that. For a typical government, if they’re going to fly their own GEO satellites, they’re refreshing those over 15 to 25 years.
We’re going to launch seven over the next roughly four years. To governments, I tell them that our pace of innovation and evolution is quite different from yours. In the space comms game today, there’s a lot of innovation and new ideas going along and you need to be able to turn your innovation wheel faster.”
Increasingly we’re having these conversations with them about, well, maybe we can do some things for you because we’re going to get to that faster than you are.
Orchestra is going up against OneWeb and other mobility constellations that are also targeting governments. Are you concerned about being late to the LEO party
For starters we can generate very serious connectivity bandwidth today for government customers, and because we’re making [our Ka-band beams] follow the asset, the beams are not lit up where it’s not needed, and it’s not showing where it’s not needed. A connection that is suitable for the purpose but then goes away is something governments love. This is because jam intercept, which allows bad guys to know where you are, can be used to make government customers’ connections unavailable.
Government customers also like the ability to mix around how to deliver connectivity. Sometimes it’s all about spectrum, and we use many different frequency bands. Other times it’s more about having a smaller device. Although it’s difficult to find a small and affordable device in Ka-band, we can certainly get one in L-band. Governments want everything to be in one secure, reliable network. They don’t like things being in a mess. It is a security risk and a logistical maintenance problem.
Another thing that we focus on is the location of our network. All of our gateways are located in NATO or Five Eyes countries. Inmarsat gateway infrastructure won’t be found in any place you are concerned about security. This is still a problem for LEOs. While there are some LEOs who are trying intersatellite connections, none are using [as a baseline].. They will need many gateways to meet their current needs. It is reasonable to assume that these gateways will need to be able to access areas that may not appeal to some government customers.
The last thing I’d say is there is a long list of security requirements for serving government customers. ISO certifications, reliability standards, etc. LEO operators may be able to catch up, but it won’t happen soon. We’re currently building Orchestra.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
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