Profile: Gearing Up for Mobile High-Speed Satcom

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Profile: Gearing Up for Mobile High-Speed Satcom

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 12 December 2005
01:47 pm ET


Profile: Stig-Are Mogstad

Chief Executive Officer, Nera Satcom AS

N era SatCom AS of Norway wasted no time putting its new-generation mobile broadband satellite terminal on the market, announcing Dec. 1 that its 995-gram WorldPro 1000 terminal is ready for sale.

The Nera product will be followed in the coming weeks by gear made at Hughes Network Systems and Thrane & Thrane. All three companies have designed mobile terminals to operate with Inmarsat‘s Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service, which was made possible by the new Inmarsat 4 satellites. Service is starting now in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, which are covered by the first satellite. The second satellite, launched Nov. 9, will start BGAN service by April, according to London-based Inmarsat.

At around $2,500, the Nera WorldPro will not be selling like the Apple iPod or Microsoft Xbox 360 this holiday shopping season. But Nera SatCom Chief Executive Stig-Are Mogstad says the product should bring mobile high-speed satellite communications one step closer to a potentially huge market. He spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

What production level have you committed to for your WorldPro 1000 mobile broadband terminal?

Starting in January we will be producing 1,000 terminals per month. After the first quarter’s results we will see where it takes us. We have more than 6,000 units now on order and we expect to ship about 500 of them before Christmas. The manufacturing is done in Singapore.

Where does BGAN fit into your growth strategy?

Nera SatCom sales in 2005 are expected to be between $80 million and $100 million. We are forecasting growth in the next couple of years mainly because of the introduction of BGAN.

What new markets do you expect for the product?

This new system offers six times the capacity of the previous generation, at one-fourth the weight and about one-third the cost. We expect it will retail for around $2,500.

It fits into the pocket of the bag for your portable computer, weighs less than a kilogram and has data-transmission speeds of 384 kilobits per second receiving, and 240 kilobits per second sending — in addition to supporting simultaneous voice calling. It operates on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that has a 36-hour standby life and a five-hour life during normal operations. So we are offering a DSL-type of service that you can easily carry with you.

Does this open vast new markets? Will consumers rush toward it? I wouldn’t go that far, but we are getting close to the point at which people will say, “hey, I can take this to my vacation home and have a broadband connection.” I got mine yesterday and I can tell you that I will be taking it everywhere I take my portable PC. We even offer two colors — pink and royal blue — in addition to gray.

How does it work indoors?

Our model’s antenna can be detached and connected to the core unit with a cable so you can set the antenna outside the window to receive the satellite link.

This is a new product going into production immediately. What pre-production tests have you run to get the bugs out?

We had about 50 units that — starting last October — were distributed to users in Europe and Africa and other places within the Inmarsat 4 F1 satellite footprint. In fact to guarantee objective feedback, Inmarsat ran the tests and did not tell us who the users were.

Of course, we got the test data back and incorporated the results into the system before moving to production.

How big an investment has Nera SatCom made in BGAN terminals?

I would prefer not to cite specific numbers. But to give you an idea, we had a $15 million order from Inmarsat in 2002 to jump-start investment in terminal R&D. So it’s a substantial investment for Inmarsat, for us and for everyone concerned.

How are you positioning your product as opposed to the terminals offered by Hughes Network Systems and Thrane & Thrane?

We are the smallest, lightest and most portable of the three. We are also for now the only ones with a detachable antenna, and we have a special telephone handset designed for BGAN as well.

For customers interested in setting up the system and leaving it in one fixed place for long periods — more of a VSAT [Very Small Aperture Terminal] application — the Hughes product is probably more suitable as it offers higher data throughput — nearly 500 kilobits per second.

The military market is one that probably will want to use the gear while on the move. Are you adapting your product for this?

Yes, we are preparing a family of products for the coming year that includes vehicular models adapted to boats, cars and airplanes as part of a proof-of-concept program called BGAN Extension.

The current retail price includes the Inmarsat subsidy. Will prices drop quickly from the current $2,500 if demand permits you to increase production well beyond 1,000 per month?

If you’re asking whether prices can be divided by two — or by four — that would probably require more R&D. But higher volumes do of course allow us to streamline production processes, bringing opportunities for cost reductions.