Inmarsat to launch satellites to support high-speed VSAT service

In August, Inmarsat announced it would enter the VSAT marketplace with its next-generation satellite service, which will provide customers mobile broadband at speeds up to 50 megabits per second. The company will invest $1.2 billion in three Boeing-built satellites and related infrastructure, development and launch costs.

The three Ka-band satellites in the Inmarsat-5 constellation are slated for launch in 2014. The new service, Global Xpress, will rely on them to provide Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) global satellite coverage for the maritime, energy, government and aeronautics markets that’s faster and less expensive than current mobile broadband services.

There are an increasing number of VSAT providers already on the market, but most use Ku-band satellites, and the antennas and terminals needed to receive the signals can be expensive and bulky. Inmarsat’s new customer terminals will be smaller and more affordable than existing VSAT units. The smallest will use antennas no bigger than a magazine and still provide broadband speeds up to 5 Mbps — many times faster than current services.

“To me, this is a huge change,” said Rob Morrison, IT manager for TeeKay Corporation, a crude oil and petroleum product transportation services provider. TeeKay owns 117 vessels and manages an additional 20; about half have VSAT service now, Morrison said.

“Right now the dialup we have on vessels is 128 Kbps, a very small throughput,” he said. “The new Inmarsat is 50 Mbps.” For comparison, he said, his home broadband connection was recently upgraded to just 8 Mbps.

Currently, antennas are typically installed using an onshore crane due to their size. Installation is often scheduled to conicide with dry dock.

“We dry dock every five years, so we’re on a five-year adoption schedule right now,” Morrison said. “The ability to install antennas without dry docking vessels means no loss of revenues for downtime. Spread that out over a fleet, and the savings is enormous.”

Frank August, director of maritime Americas for Inmarsat, said the Ka-band coverage sets a new standard for mobile broadband in terms of speed, “but that’s just physics.” Rather than buying antennas and terminals from one company and service from another, consumers will be able to purchase the equipment and service directly from Inmarsat — it’s that ability to package the GlobalXpress product that sets Inmarsat apart from existing offerings, he said.

“The thing we’re doing is putting together a global network around the physics of higher speed that Ka-band offers,” he said.

The company’s existing infrastructure and brand will allow it to offer the service globally to consumers at a lower price than existing Ku-band VSAT services, August said.

Pricing information is not yet available, but the company will likely offer a variety of speeds and capacities at different price points, he said, including unlimited data, flat fee “all you can eat packages” along with limited pay-as-you-go plans.

Morrison said unlimited data packages available through most VSAT services offer advantages, including real-time monitoring for equipment vendors. Crews can send regular data packets to vendors, allowing for proactive adjustments and maintenance to prevent downtime.

“Now we’re allowing vendors to remotely access the vessels by servicing equipment in real-time using data transmissions rather than expensive ship visits,” Morrison said.

Another benefit of unlimited data usage is allowing crew to keep in touch with friends and family on shore using e-mail and free video calling, leading to improved morale.

By Professional Mariner Staff