What if satellites alone are not the best solution to mobile connectivity demand? Under its newly announced Orchestra initiative, Inmarsat wants to take a different tack. The company plans to layer multiple communications technologies, adding terrestrial services and LEO satellites to the existing GEO satellite footprint. Traffic will route via the best available network at any given time.
It is a complex topology to build and manage. But if done right it could represent a major boost in realized capacity, while saving the company massive amounts of money.
By combining the distinct qualities of GEO, LEO and 5G into a single network, we will deliver a service that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Our customers will benefit from dramatically expanded high throughput services around the world. This is the future of connectivity.– Rajeev Suri, CEO of Inmarsat
Building from the ground up
The first part of Orchestra consists of a new terrestrial network deployment. The company aims to support its airline and maritime customers at major (air)ports by shunting traffic off of the satellite beams to this ground-based solution.
This is going to be a sort of purpose-built Inmarsat network, which is intended to act as an offload to our space segment by taking the highest density hotspots, whether it be straits canals or airports and and moving a lot of that traffic off the spacecraft. So the spacecraft are then free to do the broader-area job much more efficiently.– Chief Technology Officer Peter Hadinger
Connecting to this new network will require an additional terminal and antenna on board. For aircraft it will, according to Hardinger, come in the form of a new antenna on the belly of the plane. The associated terminal would integrate with the satellite link atop the aircraft, with data flowing over whichever offers the best performance to the aircraft.
This will not, however, be a massive deployment of ground stations across the globe. Hadinger is clear that the goal is not to duplicate the company’s EAN solution beyond the borders of Europe. Rather, the focus will be on major congestion points.
“We can actually unload the network in those locations, while everybody’s sitting in the Forever loops around Heathrow,” Hadinger explains, “and transmit that information directly to the ground.” He is quick to point out that the company has not settled on specific markets to build out; Heathrow is one of many examples where the concept could be useful.
Getting there will also require cooperation between many parties. Inmarsat will need to develop (or license) the ground technology, of course. It will also need to develop and certify the on-board hardware. And, depending on the ultimate architecture of the connections, acquire the necessary spectrum and usage rights across myriad regulatory geographies.
These are just some of the reasons the program is slated for approximately $100 million in investment over the next five years.
Layering in LEO
Inmarsat is arguably late to the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) party, but the company is not worried. Nor is it planning to rush an investment forward. The initial stages of Orchestra will focus on developing the architecture to support a LEO layer in the company’s network, not actually building the satellites. And if the company decides the timing and costs are right, it can then move forward with the major capital investment that the satellites necessitate.
Much like the terrestrial components, Hadinger sees the LEO constellation a targeted solution, not a global offering. It will be used to support demand “hotspots in the world which are not close to land, not close to terrestrial access points.” By limiting the required coverage area the company hopes to limit the number of satellites required and the associated cost.
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