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Inmarsat tunes up Orchestra to tackle network congestion

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UK-based satellite firm Inmarsat has completed trials of the terrestrial element of its Orchestra network, the portion designed to ease congestion in busy shipping ports.

And it’s not the only satellite player looking to improve services for shipping. Its announcement came a day after OneWeb and Navarino teamed up to expand the availability of LEO satellite connectivity to the commercial shipping industry.

Inmarsat detailed its plans for Orchestra, a network designed to integrate geosynchronous (GEO) satellites with low earth orbit satellites (LEO) and terrestrial 5G, just under a year ago, and at the back end of last year announced the activation of its first LEO satellite. Now it has completed first-phase testing of ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship connectivity in Singapore as part of a plan to address traffic hotspots in busy ports and shipping lanes.

Essentially, the satellite operator has created what it terms stepping stones in a maritime mesh network to deliver high-speed connectivity. It chose Singapore for the trials, both because it is one of the world’s busiest container ports and due to its demanding weather conditions, namely heavy rain and high humidity. It didn’t share much in the way of technical details, but said it carried out the trials between land-based signal towers and ships offshore, using proprietary technologies across various combinations of frequency bands and terminal equipment onboard vessels.

“The tests proved the effectiveness of the stepping-stone connections in the Orchestra maritime mesh, which are expected to reach at least 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) and 100 megabits per second per link, with the mesh network extending this to 30km (18.6 miles) and beyond, enabling, for example, the download of a HD movie in 40 seconds,” Inmarsat said. That data’s pretty confusing, but basically, we’re talking about a high-speed connection over tens of kilometres. Inmarsat notes that five shore stations near Singapore would together deliver north of 10 Gbps.

“Through Inmarsat’s innovative use of spectrum and technology, combined with state of the art terrestrial mesh networks including using vessels as stepping-stones, Inmarsat will deliver enhanced and customised connectivity to our customers. This will enable Inmarsat to improve services in the future by anticipating and managing demand from customers in hotspots,” said the firm’s Chief Technology Officer Peter Hadinger.

“It is a win for all our users and Inmarsat will work with national regulators to deliver the benefits of advanced regional connectivity that will also contribute to their governments’ economic growth plans,” he added.

The company’s history is in L-band and Ka-band geostationary satellite networks, but through Orchestra it is adding terrestrial connectivity and a limited number of low-cost LEO satellites into the mix. It is also adding half a dozen new hybrid L-band and K-band satellites to its footprint between now and 2025 to support the project.

LEO satellites have made headlines over the past few years in no small part thanks to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and to a slightly lesser extent UK operator OneWeb.

This week OneWeb announced it is partnering with maritime IT solutions provider Navarino to provide high-speed connectivity to the global commercial shipping industry. The companies said they will carry out a series of trials at sea with a view to Navarino connecting its first vessels to the OneWeb network at the start of next year.

“Becoming a Distribution Partner of OneWeb ensures we can continue to deliver cutting-edge, powerful connectivity to our customers’ fleets, wherever they are in the world,” said Navarino CEO Dimitris Tsikopoulos. Indeed, OneWeb is pretty proud of the fact that it extended coverage to the Arctic region last year, and as a result it is not far from being able to offer global coverage. It has pledged to offer commercial connectivity services globally for maritime from next year.

Both of the announcements serve to further illustrate just how far satellite connectivity has come in recent years. Where once it was the preserve only of those desperate for any form of connectivity, satellite is now a viable way of provide low-latency, high speed links to all corners of the globe, be it remote areas or highly congested ones.

And it’s no longer just about the connection itself. As OneWeb puts it, “the potential for using enhanced connectivity particularly on sensitive routes where real time video and cloud syncing can be used as standard, even on deep sea vessels, is game-changing.”

 

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