Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce. Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Telecom satellite operator Inmarsat says that it plans to continue building up Global Xpress beyond the four Boeing-built satellites initially meant to comprise the entire system.

“We are at the beginning of the GX story,” Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce said March 7 at the Satellite 2017 conference here. He said Inmarsat will likely launch more satellites beyond the fourth Global Xpress spacecraft ordered in 2013, and the two Inmarsat-6 spacecraft it ordered in 2015.

Global Xpress, or GX, is Inmarsat’s fifth-generation constellation. It currently comprises three high-throughput Ka-band satellites each with 89 fixed spot beams and six steerable beams. GX was supposed to achieve global coverage in 2014, but repeat delays with Proton delayed that milestone to August 2015.  

Inmarsat paid $1.2 billion for the first three GX satellites ordered in 2010, and ordered the fourth in October 2013 for a price between $220 million and $250 million. According to the operator’s website, the GX program has cost $1.6 billion total. That last fifth-generation spacecraft is still awaiting launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 that was originally anticipated in 2016. Inmarsat has secured a Proton launcher as a backup should SpaceX’s delays prove overbearing.

Inmarsat signed a $600 million contract with Airbus Defence and Space for the two sixth-generation satellites, each of which will carry L-band and Ka-band payloads. Pearce said the two Inmarsat-6 satellites ordered from Airbus Defence and Space “are the equivalent of 12 new Inmarsat-5s,” and will be launching in the 2020 to 2021 timeframe.

“And I’m highly expecting that we will launch more satellites to add incremental capacity surgically and dynamically where it’s needed, so that people who buy GX today will know that it’s the beginning of an investment in next-generation broadband delivering very, very high throughput, very low cost per bit, and therefore being able to deliver a new service paradigm to our customers,” he said.

Along with capital expenditures on space, Pearce said Inmarsat is also investing in “every piece of the stack.” Through the operator’s partnership with ground terminal manufacturer iDirect, Inmarsat reported in February that the two companies had reached downlink speeds of 330-Mbps with GX using an iDirect iQ-Series modem. That’s close to seven times the 50-Mbps rate Inmarsat had previously achieved, Pearce said. “But it’s not enough.”

“There is going to be a lot more work, a lot more creativity, [and] a lot more investment in R&D,” he said. “Now having just launched our fifth generation satellites and commissioned our sixth generation satellites, our capex is going up, not down, and there is no capex holiday around the corner for Inmarsat. That’s because the opportunities are huge and we wouldn’t keep investing if we didn’t think we could deliver double digit returns on our investment.”

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...