Inmarsat Q&A: Orchestrating a new multi-orbit broadband constellation
Inmarsat, the 42-year-old British satellite operator that took itself private in a 2019 buyout, plans to spend $100 million over the next five years preparing to enter the increasingly competitive low-Earth-orbit market.
The company announced in late July that it will enter the arena to better serve mobility verticals, unveiling plans for at least 150 LEO spacecraft to complement its fleet in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits from 2026. Inmarsat’s plan includes a terrestrial 5G network in high-demand areas to support the multi-orbit network it calls Orchestra.
Although these plans require new regulatory licenses, Inmarsat already operates 14 satellites and has plans in place for adding five new GEO and two HEO spacecraft to its fleet.
SpaceNews caught up with Todd McDonell, Inmarsat’s president of global government, to find out what Orchestra means for government customers that make up about a third of the company’s revenues.
How are you shaping Orchestra to meet future government mobility needs?
Particularly for governments, mobility is two things: It’s either to use on the move or move anywhere to use. The second one is really important because they often need to just turn up somewhere and get a connection.
For satellite comms today, it’s hard to cover a really high-density area of users, such as a busy airport, and when they all disperse you still need to maintain connectivity. This is a real trick for LEOs because they are very small platforms so it’s hard to deliver a lot of density in one spot.
Orchestra is designed to deal with that because it has a terrestrial component based on 5G technology, the LEO component which means we can do lower latency connections, and then it still has the GEOs on top for support. The idea is to make sure we can deliver the right amount of capability and capacity for the given requirement for mobility customers, which means it needs those three legs.
What is changing in the government market that requires this multi-orbit approach?
In government today, everything is a node. Once upon a time, you’d have an asset, a ship, plane or vehicle, and you’d say, “that’s my connectivity node. So long as everything can get to that I’m good.” Now, each person is a node, as is the vehicle. They all have to be able to communicate between themselves, the vehicle and beyond that. That started very much as a military thing, but we’re seeing that now in public safety, emergency services, border protection, etc.
In the military, you’re seeing small rectangular screens on a person’s forearm so they can get live updates directly to the person, and share them with each other. They can also get further updates from the vehicle or get a direct feed from a UAV. All of those things are now required to be joined up, so that’s the reason why we need to be able to deliver more bandwidth, and to something that is much smaller and easier to carry for a person.
And that scale does multiply. If you think about the big GEOs we’re building now, they have vast amounts of capacity on them because we need to be able to deploy mass capacity to a fleet of ships. In that technology as well we’re being asked more to be able to move the focus around. The latest generation of our Kaband satellites all work with electronically steered arrays. The days when you used to just do a beam lay down — and say, “these are my beams, that’s how much capacity is in a beam, that’s how many channels you can have” — are ending.
Now we’re turning on beams in front of an aircraft, at the speed of the aircraft, and turning them off behind it. One of the great things about that is we’re only using the amount of bandwidth we need to support that asset, which means you leave the rest of that band with the power to support other assets.
The Australian Defence Force recently extended a contract to use Inmarsat’s satellites to 2027. Does that agreement cater to Orchestra’s arrival?
Absolutely. They have a very special contract with us. They have access to all our services and it does absolutely say they can pick up new services. They also have a special software platform we built for them that lets them manage the use of our services themselves. That gives them the ability to control the use of services on a satellite that they don’t own, and that’s kind of a new idea.
Are you in talks to expand that model to other countries?
Yes, there are conversations with other governments about that. For a typical government, if they’re going to fly their own GEO satellites, they’re refreshing those over 15 to 25 years.
We’re going to launch seven over the next roughly four years. So I say to governments, “our pace of evolution and innovation is a rather serious speed difference to yours. In the space comms game today, there’s a lot of innovation and new ideas going along and you need to be able to turn your innovation wheel faster.”
Increasingly we’re having these conversations with them about, well, maybe we can do some things for you because we’re going to get to that faster than you are.
Orchestra is going up against OneWeb and other mobility constellations that are also targeting governments. How concerned are you about coming late to the LEO party?
For starters we can generate very serious connectivity bandwidth today for government customers, and because we’re making [our Ka-band beams] follow the asset, the beams are not lit up where it’s not needed, and it’s not showing where it’s not needed. One of the things governments like is a connection that suits the need at the time, but then disappears, because for things like jam, intercept — letting the bad guys know where you are — you don’t want your connection there all the time.
Government customers also like the ability to mix around how to deliver connectivity. Sometimes it’s about spectrum — and we use a lot of different frequency bands — and sometimes it’s about having a smaller device. It’s very hard to get a small, low-cost device in Ka-band today but we can definitely get that in L-band. And governments like everything in one very reliable, secure network. Having things in a bit of a patchwork is a security threat for them, a logistical maintenance issue, and so on.
Another thing we really focus on is where our network is. If you look at all of our gateways, they’re all in Five Eyes or NATO countries. You won’t find Inmarsat gateway infrastructure in a place that you would be concerned about security-wise. That’s still a challenge for LEOs. There are a few LEOs that are experimenting with intersatellite links but none of them are using that [as a baseline]. To meet their current requirements, they are going to need a lot of gateways. There’s a reasonable assumption that those gateways are going to need to go in some places that some government customers might not find very attractive.
The last thing I’d say is there is a long list of security requirements for serving government customers. ISO certifications, reliability requirements, etc. LEO operators could easily catch up to all of that, but that won’t happen quickly. In the meantime, we’re building Orchestra.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.