Inmarsat, the 42-year-old UK satellite operator that went private in a 2019 buyout, plans to spend $ 100 million over the next five years to prepare to enter the increasingly competitive market of low earth orbit.
The company announced in late July that it would 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’s plan includes a high demand 5G terrestrial network. to support the multi-orbital network it calls Orchestra.
Although these plans require new regulatory licenses, Inmarsat already operates 14 satellites and plans to add five new GEO and two HEO satellites to its fleet.
News met Todd McDonell, chairman of the global government of Inmarsat, to find out what Orchestra means to government clients who account for roughly a third of the company’s revenue.
How are you shaping Orchestra to meet future government mobility needs?
Particularly for governments, mobility is two things: it is either to use while on the move or to travel anywhere to use it. The second is really important because they often need to show up somewhere and get a connection.
For satellite communications today, it is difficult to cover a very dense area of users, such as a busy airport, and when they all spread out, you still need to maintain connectivity. This is a real tip for LEOs as they are very small platforms so it is difficult to provide a lot of density in one place.
Orchestra is designed to deal with this because it has a terrestrial component based on 5G technology, the LEO component, which means we can make lower latency connections and then it still has the GEOs on top for support. The idea is to make sure that we can provide the right amount of capacity and capacity for the given needs of the mobility customers, which means it needs those three legs.
What is changing in the government market that requires this multi-orbital approach?
In government today, everything is a knot. Once upon a time, you had an asset, a ship, a plane, or a vehicle, and you’d say, “This is my node of connectivity. As long as anything can happen, I’m fine. Now each person is a node, just like the vehicle. They all need to be able to communicate with each other, the vehicle and beyond. It started out largely as a military affair, but we are now seeing it in the areas of public safety, emergency services, border protection, etc.
In the military, you see small rectangular screens on a person’s forearm so that they can receive live updates directly with the person and share them with each other. They can also get other updates from the vehicle or get direct power from a drone. All of these things now need to come together, which is why we need to be able to provide more bandwidth and something much smaller and easier for a person to carry.
And this scale is multiplying. If you think about the large GEOs that we are building right now, they have large amounts of capacity because we have to be able to deploy mass capacity on a fleet of ships. In this technology, too, we are asked more to be able to shift attention. The latest generation of our Kaband satellites all operate with electronically controlled networks. The days when you were just stretching out a beam – and saying, “these are my beams, this is the capacity of a beam, this is how many channels you can have” – are coming to an end.
Now we turn on beams in front of a plane, at the speed of the plane, and turn them off behind it. One of the great things about this is that we only use the amount of bandwidth we need to support that asset, which means you let the rest of that band have the power to support that asset. ‘other assets.
The Australian Defense Force recently extended a contract for the use of Inmarsat satellites until 2027. Does this agreement take into account the arrival of Orchestra?
Absoutely. They have a very special contract with us. They have access to all of our services, and that absolutely means that they can get new services. They also have a special software platform that we have designed for them, which allows them to manage the use of our services themselves. It gives them the ability to control the use of services on a satellite that they don’t own, and that’s kind of a new idea.
Are you in talks to extend this model to other countries?
Yes, there are conversations with other governments on this. For a typical government, if it wants to pilot its own GEO satellites, it updates them over 15 to 25 years.
We will be launching seven over the next four years or so. So I say to governments, “Our pace of evolution and innovation is a pretty serious speed difference from yours. In the space communications game today there is a lot of innovation and new ideas and you have to be able to spin the innovation wheel faster. “
More and more we’re having these conversations with them about, well, maybe there are some things we can do for you because we’re going to get there faster than you.
Orchestra clashes with OneWeb and other mobility constellations that also target governments. Are you worried about being late for the LEO party?
For starters, today we can generate very significant connectivity bandwidth for government customers, and because we are doing [our Ka-band beams] follow the active, the beams aren’t on where you don’t need them, and it doesn’t show where you don’t need it. One of the things governments love is a connection that meets the need of the moment, but then goes away, because for things like jamming, interception – letting the bad guys know where you are – you don’t want to. not that your connection is there all the time.
Government customers also appreciate the ability to choose how to provide connectivity. Sometimes it’s spectrum – and we use a lot of different frequency bands – and sometimes it’s about having a smaller device. It’s very hard to get a small cheap Ka-band device today, but we can definitely get it in L-band. And governments love everything in a very reliable and secure network. Having things in a patchwork is a threat to their security, a problem with logistics maintenance, etc.
Another thing that we really focus on is where our network is located. If you look at all of our gateways, they’re all in Five Eyes or NATO countries. You won’t find an Inmarsat gateway infrastructure in a place where you are concerned about security. It’s always a challenge for LEOs. There are a few LEOs who are experimenting with intersatellite links but none of them use this [as a baseline]. To meet their current needs, they’re going to need a lot of gateways. There is a reasonable assumption that these gateways will have to go to certain places that some government customers might not find very attractive.
The last thing I would say is that there is a long list of security requirements to serve government clients. ISO certifications, reliability requirements, etc. LEO operators could easily catch up with all of this, but it won’t happen quickly. In the meantime, we are building Orchestra.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.