PARIS — Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat on May 7 said competitor Iridium’s renewed attempt to become certified as a maritime distress signal provider is “utterly inappropriate” and that allowing Iridium to offer such a service would put lives at risk.
In unusually stark, even violent, terms, Inmarsat’s usually measured chief executive, Rupert Pearce, said Iridium’s current network is incapable of providing the minimum reliability required by the International Maritime Organization, and that Iridium has yet to demonstrate it can fully finance and deploy its second-generation constellation.
In an unrelated jab at Iridium’s planned Aireon air-navigation service, Pearce said Inmarsat stands ready, immediately, to offer global airlines a minute-by-minute positioning service that will permit fuel savings in addition to helping avoid another incident such as the disappearance, presumably in midocean, of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
In a conference call with investors, Pearce said Inmarsat’s gear is already installed on more than 80 percent of all commercial aircraft traversing the world’s oceans, and that the technology to deliver aircraft black-box data to the Internet through real-time streaming is available now as well.
McLean, Virginia-based Iridium’s Aireon subsidiary is developing a business based on providing Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) terminals on all 72 second-generation Iridium satellites set for launch between 2015 and 2017. Aireon’s business model calls for the airlines to pay Aireon a fee that would come from the potentially large savings in aviation fuel costs that would flow from the Aireon service.
Pearce said ADS-B is not good enough, and that a two-way service, ADS-C — the C stands for Communications — is where the world’s commercial airlines should be headed.
The International Civil Aviation Organization has scheduled a meeting on global tracking of aircraft May 12-13 at its Montreal headquarters. Inmarsat spokesman Christopher McLaughlin said the company would be presenting a detailed set of proposals to the meeting.
“We’re working with regulators,” Pearce said. “We are willing to make the investments and upgrades on our network to support free basic position reporting on aircraft crossing the oceans — to take cost out of the equation and to make a commitment to aviation safety.
“We will provide enhanced position reporting services to provide more timely information, richer information about an aircraft. We will be able, essentially, to provide a black box streaming off aircraft based on certain trigger events that would allow you to reach back to find out what was on the flight data recorder up to the point when you have your event, and then track, in real time, thereafter [to] provide situational awareness.”
Pearce said an ADS-B network would be insufficient. “When the dot disappears from your [ADS-B] network, you have absolutely no intel,” Pearce said, adding that in addition to enhanced safety, the ADS-C solution would offer fuel savings that ultimately should reduce passenger ticket prices.
Inmarsat’s beef with Iridium, fueled by the two companies’ direct competition in land-based, maritime and aeronautical satellite communications services, in the past has been limited to questions about whether Iridium’s current 66-satellite constellation in low Earth orbit will survive to 2017-2018, when the second-generation Iridium Next network is scheduled to become available.
Iridium recently told investors that it had lost its 10th satellite since 2001 — nine from in-orbit failures, one from an in-orbit collision with a dead Russian satellite — and that its ability to replace failed satellites with in-orbit spares was coming to an end.
The company said not all of its 66 operational satellites are operating at 100 percent all the time.
Inmarsat has produced its own assessment of Iridium reliability, saying it varies from 96.5 percent to around 99 percent.
Pearce said he has it on good authority that in human lifespan terms, Iridium’s constellation is 200 years old. Not for the first time, he said Inmarsat is winning business from Iridium customers who are not satisfied with the latter’s service reliability.
With assistance from a Boeing team in Leesburg, Virginia, Iridium has disproved longstanding predictions from some quarters that its constellation was about to collapse. Aided by outside analyses, the company continues to tell investors and others that the current satellites will be able to function until the new-generation satellites are in service.
The U.S. Defense Department apparently is a believer, having signed on last October for another five years of Iridium services in a contract valued at $400 million.
Iridium has for several years said it would seek certification as a provider of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) services, for which certification is required from the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
IMO’s Resolution 1001, passed in November 2007, stipulates that GMDSS service providers must assure network reliability levels of 99.9 percent, meaning no more than 8.8 hours of down time in a given year.
Inmarsat remains the sole GMDSS provider. Iridium would like GMDSS certification. Backed by the U.S. Coast Guard, it submitted a request to the IMO in April.
It is this proposal that set Pearce off on a broadside of rare intensity, even in the highly competitive mobile satellite services business. An Inmarsat official said Pearce’s remarks were delivered extemporaneously and were not prearranged for the conference call.
“While we obviously welcome competition and innovation around GMDSS and safety services generally, the most important thing is that the standards of quality for safety services are maintained, if not enhanced,” Pearce said.
“Fundamental to that is 99.99 percent availability on your network. We do not believe that Iridium even comes close to that level of performance. As such, it is utterly inappropriate that they should even apply, let alone be granted accreditation.
“Lives will be lost if people install that equipment and it’s not available when they need it. In the context of a safety service, as opposed to a commercial service, the consequences are ghastly to think about.
“We will be asking the regulators to wait until much further down the road, when alternative networks may be up and may deliver that kind of availability before they think about foisting that kind of service on a mariner out there in the ocean needing help. The rules are there to support, crucially, safety of life at sea. It’s not something you should knock about with. As we’ve seen in the aviation context, these services, when they’re needed, are utterly crucial.”
Asked to comment, an Iridium spokeswoman said the company is in a no-comment period required because it is in the middle of a campaign to raise capital from investors.
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