Mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat watched for years as traditional fixed satellite services operators went after its core maritime market with very small aperture terminal (VSAT) services in C- and Ku-bands.

While Inmarsat has all the global maritime routes covered with its Inmarsat-4 satellite system — its new competitors offered only patchwork coverage in many key areas — it suffered a disadvantage in that its L-band services are less than ideal for increasingly popular broadband applications. While customers weren’t giving up their L-band terminals, many have tried to limit the use of Inmarsat services to times when their vessels are outside the range of VSAT coverage.

Andrew Sukawaty, Inmarsat’s former chief executive and current executive chairman, has tended to downplay the threat posed by the likes of Intelsat and SES, attributing sluggish growth in the maritime business mostly to other factors including slow uptake of reconfigured Inmarsat service offerings. 

Nonetheless, Inmarsat in 2010 opted to place a $1.2 billion bet on an all Ka-band, three-satellite system dubbed Global Xpress. Inmarsat touts Global Xpress as a game-changing mobile system providing seamless, global broadband connectivity across the maritime, energy, military and aviation markets.

Whether or not Global Xpress was an offensive or defensive investment is debatable. But Inmarsat clearly is counting on the new system, which will operate in both civilian and military frequencies and will be compatible with the U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom system, as a driver of future growth. Inmarsat warned investors in March 2012 to expect near zero growth for two years, but said Global Xpress would turn things around, driving 8-12 percent annual growth for three years starting in 2014.

Whether Global Xpress service actually begins in calendar year 2014 will depend in part on the Russian-built Proton rocket, which has had reliability issues in recent years. Inmarsat selected Proton, marketed commercially by International Launch Services, to launch all three Global Xpress satellites, with the first now scheduled for December. The remaining launches are scheduled to take place at unspecified intervals in 2014.