AIX: Inmarsat eyes up satellites for polar coverage

A satellite in a Molinya orbit.
A satellite in a Molniya orbit. Image: Wikipedia.

Inmarsat is currently considering new satellites to fill in coverage gaps at the North and South Poles, plus Arctic areas.

Current geostationary satellites, such as its Inmarsat GX series, run out of steam at about 85 degrees North and South of the equator, but the company is looking at novel ways of providing truly global coverage.

One solution would be to augment the GX-series coverage with additional satellites in what is known as a Molniya orbit. These are highly elliptical, but result in the satellite spending a lot of time almost stationary at their apogee – their point furthest away from Earth.

The name comes from a series of Soviet/Russian Molniya communications satellites which have been using this type of orbit since the mid-1960s.

With an apogee altitude as high as 40,000 km, the satellite could spend a considerable portion of its orbit with excellent visibility of the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

Philip Balaam, President, Inmarsat Aviation

Speaking at a press event at Hamburg AIX, Philip Balaam, President, Inmarsat Aviation, said they are looking at options, but wouldn’t comment further or offer any other details.

“There is a big need for satellite coverage in the Arctic areas,” Balaam said.

He also offered updates on the Inmarsat GX satellites. Its GX-5 satellite is expected to launch in 2020, while GX-6a and GX-6b are expected later in 2020 and 2021.

These will offer both wide and spot beam Ka-band coverage, and like the existing GX satellites in orbit, the GX-6s will be able to offer steerable beams..

“Our next generation of satellites are very different,” Balaam said. “We will have plenty of capacity and we will be able to direct that capacity where it is needed.”

“Our business is spectrum limited. But our business, our DNA, is global mobility.”

Inmarsat also announced that more than 1,000 terminals have now been installed for its next-generation inflight broadband solutions by customers in the global airline and business aviation markets.

GX Aviation is currently available with airlines such as Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Norwegian, Avianca and Citilink.

Passengers enjoying inflight connectivity with SITAONAIR on Singapore Airlines. Image: SITAONAIR .
Passengers enjoying inflight connectivity with SITAONAIR on Singapore Airlines. Image: SITAONAIR .

Inmarsat partner SITAONAIR also announced that it has now activated GX Aviation on the majority of Philippine Airlines (PAL)’s new-generation aircraft.

Balaam said the GX-5/GX-6 combination, along with the current Inmarsat I-5s, would give it tremendous bandwidth and allow for future aviation growth.

He also said that its European Aviation Network (EAN) is currently in a soft launch phase with IAG. Four British Airways aircraft are currently live with the system, although around 100 are believed to be equipped with the hybrid satellite/ATG EAN capability.

“IAG want to make sure everything is working properly before a full launch,” Balaam said. “The service is extraordinary and it offers the fastest inflight connectivity speeds in Europe. The next phase will be a roll-out on Iberian.”

He dismissed claims from Viasat that EAN is unlawful, saying they were without merit.

“The slow roll-out is absolutely nothing to do with legislation or the case before the European Court of Justice,” he said. “The cadence of the roll-out is down to engineering caution, nothing else. The customer wants to get crew training completed before a full roll-out as well.”

“We are also looking at oil platforms as a potential way of getting additional ATG coverage in areas such as the Irish Sea, which have otherwise had to rely on EAN’s satellite component for coverage,” he said.

An LTE ground station for the EAN. Image: Deutsche Telekom.
An LTE ground station for the EAN. Image: Deutsche Telekom.

He also pointed out that EAN can be installed on an aircraft in under eight hours.

And what of the take-over bid that would see Inmarsat delisted from the stock exchange and once again become a private company?

Inmarsat has had an offer of £2.6bn from a consortium, known as Triton Bidco,  which includes Apax Partners, Warburg Pincus and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. It first approached Inmarsat at the end of January about a possible takeover.

The consortium’s $7.21 (£5.43) a share offer amounts to a 46pc premium to the share price on Jan 30 before takeover talks emerged.

“The bid will be put to shareholders in May and I don’t see any reason why it might be rejected,” Balaam concluded.

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