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Inmarsat orchestrates new hybrid network

Satellite operator to invest $100m in at least 150 LEO satellites to create a multi-orbit constellation combined with a terrestrial 5G network.

Inmarsat announced plans to create a ‘multi-orbit’ constellation called Orchestra, intensifying competition in an increasingly crowded market in space.

The UK-based satellite operator aims to add a terrestrial 5G network and a small constellation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites to its existing and planned group of satellites in geostationary orbit.

The primary ambition of the new hybrid network is to increase Inmarsat’s ability to provide low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity especially in congested network hotspots around the world, such as airports and ports.

Inmarsat said Orchestra is “designed to meet evolving connectivity needs in the mobility market with a service unmatched by any competitor offering, planned or in existence”.

Rajeev Suri, the former Nokia CEO who took over the helm of Inmarsat in February this year, told Reuters that the service would not compete directly with the likes of Elon Musk’s Starlink or LEO broadband startup OneWeb because it would be targeted at commercial and government customers, rather than consumer broadband or video distribution.

An Inmarsat spokesperson told Telecoms.com that Inmarsat is “exclusively focused on mobility and government customers”.

Suri in charge

In detail, Inmarsat said Orchestra will bring together existing geosynchronous (GEO) satellites with LEO and terrestrial 5G into what it described as “an integrated, high-performance solution”, creating a “dynamic mesh network” from the different technologies.

Suri is in charge of ensuring that all elements are brought together in harmony. His experience in delivering 5G networks at Nokia will certainly be an advantage here.

“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,” Suri said. “Our customers will benefit from dramatically expanded high throughput services around the world.”

At least 150 LEOs

What we know so far is that Inmarsat plans to invest $100 million by 2026 and aims to create a LEO constellation in the range of 150-175 satellites.

The Inmarsat spokesperson said the initial, five-year programme will include “delivery of the terrestrial network, terminals for aviation and maritime, vessel deployment, and LEO test satellites”.

Inmarsat currently operates 14 satellites in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits and aims to add seven more by 2023.

SpaceNews provided more information following an interview with Inmarsat chief technology officer Peter Hadinger, who said the first step will be to add the terrestrial 5G layer followed by the LEO constellation.

Hadinger expressed confidence that Inmarsat will be able to obtain the required regulatory licences for the LEO satellites, pointing to the spectrum licences it already has in L, Ka, S and other bands.

Telecoms.com sister publication Light Reading also reported that Inmarsat intends to build its own ground-based 5G infrastructure in targeted areas like ports, straits and airports “where we can see benefit to addressing dense demand and thus offloading the space segment”, according to a company spokesperson.

“It will not be a public 5G network but a private network based on 5G technology and dedicated to serving our mobility customers,” the spokesperson said.

Inmarsat also told Telecoms.com that the plan is for this to be an Inmarsat 5G network focused around hot spots. “We will provide further details on Orchestra as milestones are achieved,” the spokesperson said.

Crowded Space

Despite Suri’s assurances that Orchestra will not compete with Starlink or OneWeb, comparisons with the two high-profile mega-constellations are difficult to avoid.

Indeed, SpaceNews notes that UK-based OneWeb has deployed more than a third of its planned 648 satellites and is chasing similar customers.

The Inmarsat spokesperson was adamant that the plans for Orchestra “bear no resemblance to the large, one-dimensional LEO constellations”.

“The new, standalone LEO constellations are based on a different, and as yet unproven, business model, relying on mass adoption in the consumer broadband market. They are far less suitable for the mobility sector. We have been exclusively serving mobility and government customers for decades and Orchestra is the most effective and the most efficient solution to meet their needs,” the spokesperson said.

The Starlink broadband network being built by Musk’s SpaceX is estimated to have launched more than 1,600 satellites in LEO, with some suggesting the number is over 1,730, and is mainly serving consumer broadband requirements.

Inmarsat does of course already have experience in hybrid networks: it is providing the MSS satellite component for the European Aviation Network (EAN). Deutsche Telekom is providing the complementary ground network comprising 300 specially adapted LTE sites in 30 countries.

The spokesperson said Orchestra “is an Inmarsat initiative, funded by Inmarsat. That said, we already have strong partnerships today and also have the potential to deploy our own solutions where those partnerships either don’t exist or are less appropriate.”

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