Have you ever wondered how foreign press correspondents can broadcast live from an area ravaged by a natural disaster that has knocked out all basic services? Or how platoons of coalition soldiers can communicate with each other over hundreds of miles in the remote mountains of Afghanistan?
The answer is via satellites and serious hardware. The foremost company in this market is Inmarsat (http://www.inmarsat.com/). Inmarsat’s business is providing Internet and voice access where none exists, from the African steppe to the forests of the Yukon to the middle of the Indian Ocean. The company reaches where terrestrial networks can’t or when they are knocked out.
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Satellite in a Bag
A True World Phone
Broadband in the Boonies
Aggressively pursuing new technologies in both its satellites and hardware devices has allowed Inmarsat to overcome the most common complaint with satellite Internet—latency. Yes, you could get access to your remote Alaskan cabin or village in Mongolia, but it used to be agonizingly slow and somewhat unreliable. Inmarsat has achieved broadband speeds and reliability that broadcast news networks, aid organizations, ships at sea, and even the military have come to depend on. And it has been able to deliver voice and Internet service at a price that’s competitive with international roaming and data rates (about $1 per minute for voice and $5 to $6 per megabyte for data).
From the High Seas to High Ground
Inmarsat dates all the way back to 1979, when it was started as an intergovernmental agency called the International Maritime Satellite Organization (Inmarsat) by a United Nations body. The name was later changed to the International Mobile Satellite Organization, keeping the acronym intact. Its primary purpose back then, according to Drew Brandy, Inmarsat’s director of LAN business, was to provide satellite communications to ocean vessels, and later for land and aeronautical purposes. The company transitioned to a commercial entity in 2000 and is now traded on the London Stock Exchange. Inmarsat has over 500 employees, most of which are based in the London headquarters but also work out of regional offices in locations including Miami, Dubai, Singapore, and Washington D.C. Brandy says that Inmarsat currently has 11 satellites in operation supporting more than 60,000 users. He adds that the company has grown rapidly, thanks to “the proliferation of broadband around the world and the appetite of users to communicate anywhere.” In fact, Brandy adds that Inmarsat can reach users in 98 percent of global locations (the North and South Poles being the exception).
Inmarsat offers a variety of services, include its BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) offering to land customers, FleetBroadband to ships, and SwiftBroadband for commercial, private, and military aircraft.
Getting the Message
So how is Inmarsat able to get Internet and voice service to such remote areas so reliably? Brandy says this feat is attributable to both its satellite technology and the hardware on the ground.
The current generation of Inmarsat satellites, the I4 series, were launched in 2005, operate on the L-band spectrum, are 60 times more powerful than the previous generation, and offer broadband speeds to up to 492 kilobits per second (kbps) for land customers. Launching a new generation of satellites, however, is no easy feat, Brandy says.
“You have to meet FCC approval, then secure contracts with companies to build and assemble the satellites,” he says. “And the process of agreeing to your spectrum slot and getting assigned a launch date can take years. It is a massive investment.”
There are three satellites that provide the BGAN service: one for the Asia-Pacific region; one for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; and one for the Americas. These satellites transmit to land-earth stations, around the world then to users.
As for compatible hardware, Inmarsat supports devices from manufacturers such as Hughes and Thrane & Thrane (of Denmark). These devices include mobile-phone handsets, such as Inmarsat’s IsatPhone, and portable BGAN terminals, which Brandy says reporters carry in their carry-on luggage.
“You used to need a truck to broadcast in this way. We’re proud to say that now all you need is a BGAN terminal and a laptop, and you’re broadcasting in less than 5 minutes.”
The “under 5 minutes” Brandy is referring to is thanks to Inmarsat’s Launchpad software, which makes setting up a terminal and establishing a connection quick and easy. And the BGAN terminals can scale from just one user to 12, creating a complete mobile office in a suitcase.
Brandy says that such portability, flexibility, and speed have been key to media outlets, which Brandy says are “the most aggressive users of the BGAN service.” But this service has also proven invaluable to aid organizations deployed to areas ravaged by natural disasters. For example, aid workers in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake used the BGAN service not only to keep in contact with their headquarters, but also to help victims contact loved ones abroad. It is during such events, Brandy says, that the satellite system can be pushed to the limit.
“Scenarios such as Haiti, the World Cup, or the tsunami in Japan is where we are tested—a large number of users converging in one location wanting to use the service at the same time.”
Although Inmarsat’s services are largely automated, human intervention is sometimes needed in the aforementioned circumstances to re-allocate resources where they’re needed. Brandy says that media organizations around the world have been helpful in alerting Inmarsat to areas that will have a spike in demand.
Boosting Speed and Business
On the horizon for Inmarsat is branching out into new businesses, such as a recent deal it struck with SkyWave for low-data-rate-traffic telemetry services to track truck fleets and taxis, beginning in August. Also, the company plans to launch the next generation of satellites, the I5, in late 2013. Brady says that with the I5, Inmarsat is seeking to deliver speeds up to 700 kbps and use the Ka band, which is a microwave band in the 26.5 to 40 GHz spectrum typically reserved for targeting radar in military planes as well as police speed detection.
Though Brandy says he is “most proud when [our technology] is used in disasters or emergencies to help people around the world,” he also likes it when people get creative.
“We often see it used in trekking and extreme sports to blog from remote locations. It’s nice to see just how far the service can reach.”