Launch of Inmarsat’s 3rd Global Xpress Satellite Bumped to June by Centenario Delay

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TOULOUSE, France — Mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat on May 6 said its third Ka-band broadband satellite’s launch aboard a Russian Proton will not occur until early June, a delay from May, due to a satellite hardware alert affecting the customer ahead of Inmarsat in the launch queue.

That customer is Mexico’s Centenario satellite, whose planned April 30 launch aboard a Proton rocket booked through  International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, was postponed at the request of Centenario’s builder, Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California.

Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce said the delay likely would push the commercial debut of its third Global Xpress (GX) satellite to August or September.

Getting the third GX satellite into service will enable London-based Inmarsat to provide unbroken global Ka-band broadband coverage from a three-satellite constellation, with the exception of the North and South poles.

Two Global Xpress satellites are in orbit. The second, launched in February, has completed in-orbit testing and is moving to its final operating position.

In a May 6 conference call with investors, Pearce said many customers have withheld commitment to Global Xpress until the three satellites are in place and providing a global service.

Putting the third GX satellite into service, he said, “will trigger the launch of GX services globally. This is slightly later than we’d originally planned, but it will have no material effect on GX 2015 revenue or the growth in 2016 and beyond.”

Inmarsat has built its business over 35 years on the use of relatively low-speed L-band voice and data links to maritime, land-based and aeronautical customers. GX is the company’s strategy for growth in a market where traditional satellite operators have targeted aeronautical and maritime markets for their Ku-band services.

Other companies are designing Ka-band platforms to offer regional broadband in markets where they are established. The most recent is Norway’s Telenor Satellite Broadcasting, which launched a Ka-band payload in April for maritime markets.

Inmarsat has sought to capture future GX customers by offering them a maritime Ku-band service today — whose satellite bandwidth is provided by an Inmarsat customer — in return for commitments to migrate to GX when that service goes global.

Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce
Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce said the delay likely would push the commercial debut of the satellite to August or September. Credit: SpaceNews/Tom Kimmell

The company is building a global GX reseller network whose latest members include the Beijing Maritime Communications Navigation Co., which will market GX to Chinese aviation, maritime and government customers.

In addition to Ka-band, Inmarsat is moving into S-band to provide high-speed data links to commercial airline crew and passengers in Europe. It is half-owner, with Arabsat of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of a satellite scheduled to launch in late 2016, with S-band service to start in 2017.

Operating under a European Commission license for the S-band service, Inmarsat is obligated to cover all 28 European Union nations and to secure two types of licenses in each nation.

The first license type confers landing rights for the satellite signal. Inmarsat said it has received licenses in 25 of the 28 nations for this.

The second is a license to operate a ground network that will boost the satellite’s signal in areas with difficult line-of-sight coverage. For this, Inmarsat has won approval from 11 nations. Pearce said there are no issues that would delay licenses in the 17 remaining.

For the three months ending March 31, Inmarsat reported total revenue of $308.9 million, down 1.4 percent from a year ago after stripping out one-time revenue sources last year.

Maritime revenue was up 1.1 percent to $149.8 million, with the company’s higher-speed FleetBroadband service up 23 percent as customers moved to higher data-rate, and higher-cost, subscription plans. XpressLink, the company’s service offering third-party Ku-band capacity with ship-owner commitments to move to GX, was up 13 percent in the period.

Inmarsat Chief Financial Officer Tony Bates said FleetBroadband customers paid an average of around $700 per month for the L-band service in the first three months of this year, up from $650 in the previous three-month period.

Excluding hardware costs, XpressLink customers were paying around $2,500 per month, Bates said. Pearce said that when GX is available worldwide, XpressLink customers will need a terminal upgrade as they move from Ku- to Ka-band, but that this typically can be done without removing the terminal from the ship.

Inmarsat’s aviation business increased revenue by 22.1 percent, to $27.1 million, during the three-month period. The company said its SwiftBroadband service was in 5,905 planes as of March 31, up 8.3 percent. Monthly revenue per plane was around $1,000, Bates said.

Inmarsat in April signed agreements with Honeywell and new-generation antenna builder Kymeta of the United States to design a GX antenna for the aviation market.

Kymeta has also signed an agreement with satellite fleet operator Intelsat of McLean, Virginia, and Luxembourg, on a Ku-band antenna that Intelsat has described as exclusive.

Pearce said the Inmarsat deal with Kymeta covers only aeronautical applications and that it is exclusive for that market, regardless of whether it is Ka-, Ku- or any other band. “It’s in aviation where Kymeta technologies are particularly relevant,” Pearce said, saying the low-weight, low-drag antenna will extend GX’s reach to smaller aircraft.

As expected, Inmarsat’s government business suffered in the three months ending March 31, declining 16 percent to $66.8 million as the U.S. government’s use dropped with troop withdrawals from Central Asia. In addition to the U.S. military, another long-time Inmarsat government customer sharply reduced its Inmarsat use with a new contract that featured lower bandwidth prices and fewer minutes of use.