Over the summer Inmarsat announced plans to add multiple new layers to its satellite communication network. Today the company confirms that its first low earth orbit (LEO) test payload is operational.
The new satellite will be used to test concepts and configurations for the company’s ORCHESTRA architecture. The company intends to mix LEO, GEO, and HEO satellites, plus a terrestrial network in some regions, to provide a seamless, high capacity connectivity experience.
Our vision for ORCHESTRA is a network that uses the right technology for the right purpose. We are not beholden to a single approach and believe that the best way to meet customer needs is a multidimensional approach that includes GEO, LEO and terrestrial 5G in a dynamic mesh that brings capacity to where it is needed in the most efficient way possible.– Rajeev Suri, CEO of Inmarsat
The test payload will be used to test both LEO-to-ground and LEO-to-GEO services. The satellite features a dynamically reprogrammable payload, allowing the company to bring on additional testing concepts in the months ahead.
As Yasrine Ibnyahya, Inmarsat’s Senior Director, Advanced Concepts and Technologies, explains, “Using software defined radio payloads in LEO, we are able to test, refine, retest and validate as many concepts as we need. It is a quick, agile and highly economic approach that enables us to meet our ambitious targets for rolling out key components for Inmarsat ORCHESTRA.”
An eventual LEO network
While competitors aim to bring LEO constellations with full global coverage to the in-flight connectivity market as soon as the end of 2023, Inmarsat’s approach remains slightly more cautious. CTO Peter Hadinger suggested in July that the initial proof of concept plans would take shape relatively quickly, but that a decision to build and launch a full constellation would not come until the middle of the decade:
We’re making all the preparations necessary to get into LEO at some point. But the point that we push the button on really spending the big bucks for LEO, that’s late in the decade. Obviously we have plenty of opportunity to craft that as we come to it.
Moreover, the company will take a measured approach to the potential new constellation. This includes possibly not offering it at all.
If the promises, in terms of costs and performance and so forth, don’t pan out for LEOs, we don’t need to push that button. But we will be prepared and have our customers prepared to include LEO at that the time if it is appropriate.
Hitting the hot spots
Hadinger also suggested that Inmarsat’s LEO architecture would differ from the competition in that it would not start with plans for fully global coverage. The 5G terrestrial component to handle high demand near airports is expected to roll out first.
But, Hadinger noted, “The real question then becomes, when you get beyond the range of the terrestrial links? There are hotspots in the world which are not close to land, close to terrestrial access points.” For Inmarsat, “that’s really where the LEO layer is anticipated to take over.”
Building out a constellation of a few dozen satellites to provide continuous coverage over a handful of bandwidth-intensive hotspots is far cheaper and far less complicated than building out a global constellation. And if the GEO/HEO constellation continues to deliver the bulk of the capacity at its already amortized cost basis that could allow Inmarsat to keep the overall service pricing lower (or profit margins higher) in delivering the connectivity.
Hybrid on top of hybrid
The hybrid network architecture also potentially includes a hybrid approach to the antenna and terminal configuration on board. While competitors talk of wholesale terminal replacements to enable LEO connectivity, Hadinger believes a hybrid approach could prove useful.
Given the company’s expectation of a “GX hardware baseline broadband solution” the existing terminals will continue to support that connection. From there, however, the incremental addition of the LEO network will occur in a manner that adds to that, rather than replacing it. “So you can think of this as a bolt-on to GX,” Hadinger explained. “Ideally, we’ll fit it within the same radome housing.”
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