Inmarsat recently announced an agreement with Boeing to purchase three satellites that the company will operate in the Ka band in order to provide mobile broadband data services to the government, energy and maritime sectors. The company will invest $1.2 billion over the next five years to purchase and launch the satellites, deploy ground-based infrastructure, and develop products. The company said that it expects to realize annual Ka-band service revenues of $500 million five years after the network becomes operational.

The Global Xpress network will provide global geosynchronous coverage. Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, president of Inmarsat Government Services said that potential applications include military airborne reconnaissance, mobile communications for troops on the move, shipboard video teleconferencing, disaster communications when terrestrial infrastructure is inoperable, and first-responder communications in remote areas where terrestrial infrastructure is non-existent. While voice could become a component of the network, broadband data is the primary focus, according to Cowen-Hirsch.

“This is a logical extension of our business,” she said.
The Ka band was chosen because it “provides a relative abundance of spectrum available, particularly in the mobile satellite service realm,” Cowen-Hirsch said. In contrast, the Ku band is allocated for fixed narrowband services. “Inmarsat’s heritage is in mobile services,” she said.

Global Xpress will be integrated with Inmarsat’s L-band network. Cowen-Hirsch predicted that the two networks would complement each other. The L band is used for narrowband applications, but its signal can get through all weather conditions, from a dust storm to high heat and humidity, she said. In contrast, the Ka band is ideal for broadband applications, but is vulnerable to certain weather conditions, such as rain attenuation.

“Many of our customers will use both the L band and the Ka band to ensure that their communications get through,” Cowen-Hirsch said.

Inmarsat will be the first to market with Ka-band mobile broadband services targeted to the government and enterprise sectors. While Ka-band service providers already exist, they typically provide fixed services to the home market, Cowen-Hirsch said. She added that she believes the technology is mature, as Boeing has manufactured roughly 70% of the Ka-band satellites currently in orbit.

“We’re confident that we’re not on the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology, and that the business model and the technology that we have brought together for Global Express is at the right time and purpose for our users,” Cowen-Hirsch said.

Terminal form factors will be small, about 24 inches wide. “It’s a very manageable size for ship use and for oil-drilling platforms,” Cowen-Hirsch said. Terminals that will be used for airborne reconnaissance and by troops on the move will be about 8 inches, “about the size of an iPad,” she said.

Operations are expected to begin by 2014. For that reason, Cowen-Hirsch said that it would be premature to discuss Global Xpress pricing. But she added that she’s confident that prices will be “significantly less” than the prices that Ku-band service providers currently are offering.

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