Inmarsat preps new maritime product to fend off KVH competition

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WASHINGTON — Satellite operator Inmarsat said it will release a new maritime connectivity product around year’s end to stem the flow of customers to competitor KVH.

Rupert Pearce, Inmarsat’s CEO, said Nov. 8 that the company is taking steps to retain customers in its largest market segment, having identified broadband for social use among crews as the missing component of Inmarsat’s maritime service offering.

With the new product, called Crew Xpress, Pearce said Inmarsat is confident it will win the “fight for the hearts and minds” of its low-data-rate L-band customers as increasing numbers of them shift to higher data-rate connectivity using Very Small Aperture Terminals, or VSATs.

KVH has emerged as Inmarsat’s principal competitor in maritime VSAT connectivity, winning customers with a network built on capacity from Intelsat and Sky Perfect JSAT.

Pearce, in an earnings call, said Inmarsat continues to lose a larger than expected number of its L-band FleetBroadband customers to KVH and other VSAT competitors, but is “working extremely hard to address this competitive dynamic.”

Inmarsat’s third quarter maritime revenue decreased 5.7 percent to $135 million compared to the same period last year. Despite the loss, Inmarsat said its share of the maritime VSAT market has increased to around 25 percent, up from around 15 percent two years ago.

Pearce said customers across Inmarsat’s four markets — maritime, aviation, government and enterprise — are using the company’s satellites for an increasing level of mission-critical connectivity services. Maritime crew welfare doesn’t fall into that category, he said, but the changes underway provide an opportunity for Inmarsat to hone its Fleet Xpress products that support connectivity at sea with the company’s four Global Xpress Ka-band satellites.

“If you ask me whether I expect Fleet Xpress as it currently is today to be competitive in five years time if we do nothing, the answer is of course not,” he said. “I’d be delighted if my competitors disagree with me because I will eviscerate them in the market through improvements to Fleet Xpress. It’s a game in which we continue to have to invest.”

Inmarsat’s total revenue for the three months ended Sept. 30 grew by 3.7 percent to $369.3 million, with inflight connectivity and government services both increasing compared to the same time last year.

Aviation was Inmarsat’s fastest growing segment, increasing 34 percent year-over-year to $68.2 million for the quarter.

Pearce said Panasonic Avionics’ September agreement to use Inmarsat exclusively for Ka-band services validates Inmarsat’s use of those frequencies over the more commonly used Ku-band.

Pearce said the 10-year Panasonic Avionics partnership marked a sea-change in industry thinking, though competitors like Intelsat and SES, which provide substantial amounts of Ku-band capacity to Panasonic Avionics, Gogo and Global Eagle Entertainment, would likely disagree.

“You’ll see that the industry is beginning to realize that Ku-band does not cut it, that Ku-band cannot be something to rely on for future services for inflight connectivity, and that is going to cause people to take a pause and change their strategies,” he said.

Panasonic Avionics has customized Ku-band payloads on satellites operated by Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat, and has another under construction on Apsatcom’s Apstar-6D satellite that launches next year. The increasing prevalence of Ku- and Ka-band has led companies including Hughes, Gilat and Viasat to develop aviation antennas that support both frequencies.

Pearce said Inmarsat continues to see a market for L-band services despite the increased demand for satellite communications that can support higher speed services. One of those big opportunities is the Internet of Things, though it is too early to gauge revenue potential there, he said.