TAMPA, Fla. — British operator Inmarsat plans to add at least 150 low-Earth-orbit satellites to its global fleet, stepping up competition against OneWeb and others developing megaconstellations for mobility markets. 

The company is investing $100 million over the next five years to lay the groundwork for deploying 150-175 LEO spacecraft.

They aim to join satellites Inmarsat has in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits from 2026.

Inmarsat, which currently operates 14 satellites, is also on track to add five new GEO and two HEO spacecraft to its network over the next five years.

Its incoming multi-orbit constellation, called Orchestra, seeks to improve latency, network speeds and resiliency for communications services across its core maritime, aviation, government and enterprise markets. 

The LEO satellites will expand “the tool kit of things we can offer to them,” Inmarsat chief technology officer Peter Hadinger said in an interview.

This includes emerging markets such as air taxis and autonomous shipping, which will require the low levels of latency that LEO satellites promise to deliver by being closer to Earth than GEO.

LEO competition

Inmarsat’s foray into LEO will intensify competition in an increasingly crowded market. 

U.K.-headquartered LEO broadband startup OneWeb, which has deployed more than a third of its 648-strong constellation, is chasing similar customers.

Canadian satellite operator Telesat is also developing a LEO constellation for enterprise and government markets, but has yet to start launches.

U.S.-based SpaceX has a Starlink broadband network estimated to number more than 1,600 satellites in LEO, but is deploying services that mainly serve consumer broadband.

OneWeb did not start out with a focus on the enterprise and government markets it is now targeting, Hadinger noted.

The venture was founded in 2012 with a mission to connect remote villages and schools before pivoting its initial focus, reducing the size of its constellation from 900 satellites.

“For us, mobility has always been the market,” he said, adding that “it is a market that other people say, oh, and we should get into that market too — but they’re late to the party in coming to mobility.

“And quite frankly their systems, and the cost of their systems, are just inappropriately scaled for the economics of the global mobility market.”

OneWeb, which emerged from bankruptcy protection last year and this June fully secured the $2.4 billion needed for its constellation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Orchestra road map

The first step for Orchestra is to add a terrestrial 5G layer that Hadinger said will “unload the space segment in the hottest of hot spots, where we know from experience that we have lots of concentrated demand.

“And then the LEO layer allows us to address hot spots that are farther away than you can get with terrestrial means.”

It means the hybrid network would be able to provide robust connectivity to a ship in a crowded port in addition to a defense force operating in a remote location.

Orchestra’s design also enables individual antennas to direct traffic to and from other customers terminals, creating a mobile web to improve performance and resiliency across the network.

Using a combination of different technologies, Hadinger said Orchestra will have “the lowest average latency of anybody.”

He said the operator is currently refining terminal models and expects to release performance and other details to customers later this year.

Obstacles to clear

Inmarsat will also need to obtain regulatory licenses to operate a constellation in LEO.

British telecoms regulator Ofcom proposed rule changes July 26, including new checks on interference and competition risks when it considers license applications, for satellites non-geostationary orbits.

It launched a consultation process on the rules that ends Sept. 20, adding that it will not process new applications until after this public comment period.

Hadinger is confident Inmarsat will be able to obtain regulatory clearances, despite coming late to the LEO arena, pointing to the spectrum licenses it already has in L, Ka, S and other bands.

“It’s going to take a little while to do, but we’re in no huge hurry here to get that done,” he said.

“We have high confidence in our approach from a regulatory perspective. It’s very consistent with what we’ve done in the past.”

Orchestra is the first major constellation announcement from Inmarsat since it was sold to private equity for $3 billion in 2019.

It comes just months after the appointment of Rajeev Suri, who used to head Finnish telecoms infrastructure company Nokia, as CEO on March 1

Suri kicked off a wide-ranging review of the company’s operations to return it to revenue growth after COVID-19 hammered its in-flight connectivity business in 2020.

The review has so far also resulted in high-level management changes at the company.

“Inmarsat is taking a financially prudent and conservative approach to [Orchestra],” Hadinger added.

“We recognize that the industry today is in sort of a bubble of frothy stuff … our customers are looking for companies that will be economically stable and deliver for a long time.”

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...