Last week, I had the great pleasure of a live video call with Colonel Terry Virts, the former Commander of the International Space Station. Terry and the intrepid One More Orbit crew, drawn from many countries, were flying around the world to set a record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe via the North and South Poles.   They beat the record by almost six hours.

The purpose of their mission was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, inarguably one of the greatest achievements in human history, and to raise awareness of the growing challenges facing our world, from increasing geopolitical division and polarization to the mounting pressures on our environment, including from climate change.

Rupert Pearce is the CEO of London-based satellite operator Inmarsat. Credit: Inmarsat.

Inmarsat celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. For me, this is a moment for reflection — to look backward and reflect on how we got where we are today, and also to look to the future and ask how well-equipped we are to meet the challenges and opportunities of the next 40 years. But in looking forward it’s important not just to examine our narrow commercial and financial goals, but also to conceptualize beyond that to think about Inmarsat’s fundamental purpose and values, and in particular to ask ourselves — what are we doing to help the world address its biggest challenges and open up its most exciting new possibilities?

My conversation with Terry Virts covered a lot of ground, and one theme came to the fore: the role of connectivity in serving the emerging global digital society and, within this, the rapidly broadening role of the satellite communications industry.

I believe that the days are receding rapidly when we considered ourselves a niche and, from the perspective of the wider world, a somewhat invisible industry.

We are entering an era of the always-on, pervasively connected global digital society, fueled not just by person-to-person interactions, but by both person-to-machine and machine-to-machine interactions. We are becoming a planet where human potential is fundamentally empowered by dense, diverse, interoperable, highly reliable and secure communications networks. We already see next-generation networks transforming a huge variety of markets and bringing the benefits of broadband to billions of people. This process will accelerate with the advent of 5G which will bring a step-change in coverage, capability, energy consumption, as well as a step-change in IoT services.

This emerging digital society will not be possible or sustainable without satellite telecommunications woven into its infrastructure. Satcoms will extend 5G into the seas, the skies and into rural and remote areas. It will add resilience and security to terrestrial networks, and it will add important complementary capabilities such as broadcast, precision navigation and earth observation services. Governments and policymakers don’t want a 5G society only for urban elites, or only for developed economies and a digital society cannot thrive on fragile or unsecure networks. Success at a policy level and commercial level will therefore require an alliance of different technologies and capabilities — and one important contributor with unique capabilities will be the satellite industry.         

Much of the 5G focus, at least in the general media, has been on amazing new personal devices and smart cities, to name just a few. These are important topics but they are not the whole story.

Considerably less attention has been paid to the industries that join the dots. The sectors of the economy that are enabling the emerging global economy to tick – the transport networks, the supply chains and many other areas that comprise global mobility, which represent the fastest growth segment of satcoms.

The trillion dollar merchant maritime industry is being revolutionized by the advent of “smart shipping,” connected aircraft are becoming the norm, governments are putting global, agile mobile communications at the heart of their core capabilities, and a range of land-based industrial sectors are being reinvented by the power of IoT. Importantly, communications networks can even contribute to the decarbonization of our environment, to help deliver a healthier world to our grandchildren.    

I am convinced that we are only just beginning to understand the impact that the digital society will have on our world. And I’m equally convinced that companies like Inmarsat – organizations that have been around for many decades – have a future that is infinitely more exciting and dynamic than their past. And by no stretch of the imagination was that past a dull one!

In this fast-emerging world, where the fulfillment of human potential increasingly requires people and things to be connected, the relevance and role of mobile satellite telecommunications is more exciting than ever before. 

With these immense opportunities also comes great challenges, and two key obstacles come to mind.

The first is how we can facilitate greater collaboration to unlock technological innovation. IoT and true global connectivity inevitably comes with complex technological obstacles that will require collaboration to solve. Industry, governments and regulators need to work ever more closely together across multiple geographies to solve these complexities to help join the dots of global connectivity.

Mutually beneficial partnerships on issues relating to compatibility, standardization and harmonization will be a necessity. There is no silver bullet here. Regulation will undoubtedly play a role, but fundamentally a mindset shift will be required so that industries take a shared rather than combative approach to problem solving.

The second challenge for our industry lies in education and improving diversity and inclusion. 

We should not forget that in order to make a pioneering digital society possible, education and diversity/inclusion will be essential. We want to ensure industry and governments work closely together to promote the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the next generation and to ensure the industry’s workforce is truly inclusive of the diversity that exists in the world it seeks to serve. After all, you can argue that the next generation will face even greater challenges than us in ensuring a securely connected world.

Whatever happens, the emerging digital society will undoubtedly amaze and surprise. This gives us at Inmarsat a renewed sense of energy and vigor as we celebrate the start of our fifth decade. It’s a trait I see throughout our industry and among our partner communities.

Needless to say, I have a suspicion that the next 40 years are going to be the most exciting yet.

Rupert Pearce is the chief executive officer of Inmarsat. 

Rupert Pearce is the CEO of Inmarsat.