London-based satellite operator has unveiled plans for its next generation of global communications network that combines low earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary (GEO) satellites with 5G networks on the ground.
The move follows the launch of the first reconfigurable, software-defined GEO satellite by competitor Eutelsat at the weekend. Another European satellite operator, SES, already uses a combinaton of GEO, MEO and terrestrial optical fibre networks.
Inmarsat sees the Orchestra network as the largest ever transformation of its services, with the launch of a small constellation of up to 175 low earth orbit satellites (LEO) to work with the existing 14 GEO satellites and terrestrial 5G cellular networks with a dynamic mesh network.
“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,” said Rajeev Suri, CEO of Inmarsat. “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.”
Inmarsat has a focus on maritime and aircraft communications systems as well as government and enterprise services and so sees the network opening up services such as close-shore navigation for autonomous vessels, next-generation emergency safety services for maritime crews, secure and tactical private networks for governments and direct-to-cloud connections for airlines. This will also allow broadband data services for urban air mobility air taxis.
The initial investment for Orchestra is expected to be in the order of $100m over the next five years.
LEO, GEO and terrestrial networks have never been combined at scale before to create a unified connectivity service for mobility customers, says Suri, aiming to provide the lowest average latency and fastest average speeds as well as network resilience
Inmarsat’s existing GEO satellites – both GX and L-band – will continue to provide global coverage for resilience. Terrestrial 5G adds ultra-high capacity in busy ‘hot spots’, such as ports, airports, and sea canals. A small constellation of LEO satellites will layer additional high capacity over further high-demand areas such as ocean flight corridors.
The dynamic mesh technology will allow individual customer terminals to direct traffic to and from other customer terminals. This means that a ship within reach of a 5G ground station can receive ample capacity for its own needs as well as route capacity onwards to other vessels beyond terrestrial reach. This effectively creates a mobile web of terminals that extend the network’s reach and improve its performance and resilience.
“We have a record of adopting the right technology at the right time,” said Suri. “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.”
Inmarsat has already commissioned six new traffic gateways around Europe to support its latest GX5 GEO satellites. Another eight sites will be commissioned by 2022 to support further regional connectivity expansion and the new Inmarsat-6 satellites. A new generation of satellite terminals will support higher data rates.
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