Inmarsat combines satellite and 5G for new type of network

The satellite company Inmarsat unveiled plans for a new type of communications network that brings together its existing geosynchronous (GEO) satellites along with new low earth orbit satellites (LEO) and terrestrial 5G.

Inmarsat is calling this new network "Orchestra," and it will be designed to serve industrial wireless customers in difficult-to-reach places for the maritime, aviation and defense sectors. The company expects to spend about $100 million in the next five years to build Orchestra's “dynamic mesh network.”

Individual customer terminals will constitute part of the mesh. For example, a ship within reach of a 5G ground station can receive enough capacity for its own needs and then route extra capacity onward to other vessels beyond terrestrial reach.

Barry French, Inmarsat’s chief marketing and communications officer, said, “Our networks will remain backwards-compatible, so existing terminals will continue to work.  Of course, to get the full benefits of Orchestra, new equipment will be needed given the addition of 5G and LEO satellites. We have not announced any new equipment suppliers but will do so as our work proceeds.”  

Barry French
Barry French

French said Inmarsat plans to build its own 5G network to complement satellite coverage and “to unload the space segment in hotspots.”

The LEO layer will also add capacity to the network in hotspots where terrestrial infrastructure is not adequate.

“Combining GEO with LEO and a ground-based 5G network enables greater capabilities for our customers,” said French. “We have always been of the view that stand-alone large scale LEO networks simply do not make sense for our target market of global mobility customers. Not only are there technical challenges, but the economics are also quite difficult, and our customers want sustainable suppliers.”

However, he said that LEOs will play an important role as a complement to GEOs, adding capacity where it is needed, such as over oceanic flight corridors.

Spectrum for Orchestra

Inmarsat’s network operates across a wide range of spectrum bands today, and all of them will be part of Orchestra. In addition, French said the company will be applying for national licenses as it brings specific terminals to market. “Inmarsat has been using spectrum in space, on the ground and everywhere in-between, for more than 40 years,” he said. “We have one of the world’s foremost regulatory and spectrum engineering teams, and we understand how to efficiently share spectrum when needed. Our analysis shows that we should have no difficulty providing the performance expected of our new networks, even in a highly competitive spectrum environment.”

Asked if the 5G element of the network is basically a private-wireless play, French said, “We believe it is more significant than that.” In addition to bringing private wireless capabilities, Orchestra will bring a cloud-based application ecosystem, mobile VPN, and internet of Things (IoT) solutions for the maritime and aviation sectors.

Competition in satellite

The satellite broadband ecosystem is booming with entrants such as SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper. There’s also a satellite company based out of Texas — AST Space Mobile — whose service can connect to existing mobile phones. But all of these companies are targeting the consumer market.

RELATED: AST's satellite service connects directly to cell phones on carriers' networks

French said, “We are not targeting the consumer mobile phone user with Orchestra as that is not our core market. We provide connectivity for global mobility customers across maritime, aviation, government, enterprise and will continue to do so.”

Inmarsat taps former Nokia execs

French was a long-time Nokia employee who joined Inmarsat in late March.

RELATED: Inmarsat nabs former Nokia CMO Barry French

He followed on the heels of Rajeev Suri, who was formerly the CEO of Nokia but who joined Inmarsat as CEO in early March.

Suri said in a statement that Inmarsat plans to focus initially on delivering the Orchestra terrestrial network, while preparing for a future LEO constellation in the range of 150-175 satellites. Initial terrestrial deployment is expected from late 2022.  And the LEO constellation is slated for post-2026.