Inmarsat has announced ambitious new plans to move away from its purely geostationary (GEO) satellite heritage with the introduction of a hybrid communications network incorporating GEO, low earth orbit satellites (LEO) and terrestrial 5G within a single integrated system.
The service under development, to be named ORCHESTRA, will integrate these different technologies to create a ‘dynamic mesh network’ that will deliver the lowest average latency and fastest speeds available at the vessel’s location, with additional capacity being made available in high-traffic areas to support large numbers of vessels in key hotspots.
Inmarsat’s existing GEO satellites – both Global Xpress and L-band – will be integrated with a new terrestrial 5G network, owned by the company, to provide additional capacity in busy spots near shore, such as ports and sea canals.
The ‘dynamic mesh’ technology will also allow individual customer terminals to direct traffic to and from other customer terminals, so a ship within reach of a 5G ground station can receive capacity for its own needs as well as routing capacity onwards to other vessels. This will effectively create a mobile web of terminals that extends the network’s reach beyond the distance limits of antennas on shore, with the reach dependent on the number of installed vessels operating in the area.
Investment in the ground infrastructure to support these service is expected to run to about $100 million over the next five years, the company says.
This 5G network will be further supplemented by the construction of a small constellation of between 150 and 175 LEO satellites, to be introduced into the integrated service from 2026 to layer additional capacity over high-demand areas out of reach of 5G. The estimated cost of construction and launch for the LEO network has not yet been disclosed.
News of the project comes as satellite operator rivals OneWeb and SpaceX move forward with the creation of their own LEO VSAT networks, having each launched hundreds of small satellites into low earth orbit in their respective attempts to create a global broadband satellite service.
ORCHESTRA is the first major network upgrade announced since Inmarsat was acquired by a consortium of private equity investors for $3 billion in 2019, with the addition of a 5G connectivity element coming just months after the appointment of former Nokia executive Rajeev Suri as CEO in place of Rupert Pearce.
“An orchestra brings different instruments together, each supporting the other and playing its role in the masterpiece. We’re building ORCHESTRA on the same concept,” said Mr Suri.
“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 and Inmarsat is perfectly positioned to bring it to the world with its proven technology expertise, right base of customers and partners, and financial strength.”
“ORCHESTRA ensures Inmarsat is well positioned to deliver long-term, profitable growth by delivering new services to existing customers, targeting near-adjacent market segments, and maintaining a strong competitive position. We have a record of adopting the right technology at the right time. We plan to focus initially on delivering the ORCHESTRA terrestrial network, while preparing for a future LEO constellation in the range of 150-175 satellites. This is a highly cost-effective approach that leverages Inmarsat’s leading GEO satellite networks as part of ORCHESTRA’s unique multi-layer architecture.”
Plans for the ORCHESTRA network are in addition to Inmarsat’s previously announced satellite network roadmap, which currently includes seven satellites over the next three years to provide additional Ka-band and L-band capacity for Fleet Xpress users. Five of those satellites will operate in GEO orbit, with two being placed in Highly Elliptical Orbits (HEO) to provide polar coverage on the network for the first time.