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24 August 2021

Inmarsat targets aviation and shipping with global narrowband IoT service

UK satellite platform operator Inmarsat has continued its connectivity transformation by launching a global narrowband network for IoT connectivity, targeting the aviation, maritime and government sectors. This comes a month after the bolder step of starting to combine existing geosynchronous (GEO) satellites with low earth orbit satellites (LEO) and terrestrial 5G in an integrated platform called Orchestra, which it billed as its “largest ever transformation” for connectivity.

The latest narrowband IoT service, called Elera, dovetails with this by providing lower speed connectivity for IoT applications, aimed at similar sectors requiring ubiquitous communications in places often beyond the reach of pure terrestrial cellular or LPWAN networks. Elera will launch in trial mode with aviation customers in 2022, using L-band spectrum in the 1.525-1.6465 GHz range for terrestrial and satellite uses. The L band is designated by IEEE for frequencies in the 1 to 2 GHz range.

Many satellite platform operators have been under pressure to find new revenue streams in the face of long term decline in the satellite TV segment. This business has been replaced to some extent by data transport or networking, which has accounted for a growing proportion of revenues for some years now, exceeding 50% in many cases now. But generally, this has failed to compensate fully for the decline in video, so that overall revenues have tended to decline. We note here that a growing proportion of entertainment video is now streamed, and a lot of that traffic now goes over broadband networks and may be carried by satellite under the ‘network’ category.

Some have coped better than others with this disruptive change, with US-based Intelsat suffering particularly, still struggling to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection which it entered early in the Covid-19 pandemic, which was blamed rather erroneously for the fate. In fact, the company had accumulated debts of around $15bn over some years, being bogged down increasingly by interest payments on that.

Inmarsat is fortunate perhaps not to be in the TV business, and so is in a different position from some of its competitors, but still faces a challenge growing revenues. Its focus has been on global mobile data services and transmission, and Orchestra fits into that mould well by combining LEO and GEO satellites with 5G in a three-tiered global network.

This ambitious plan will take five years to complete at a cost of $100m, some of which will be incurred building its own 5G network working with existing MNO partners. This will be a mesh configuration so that traffic can be re-routed between the components on the basis of availability or performance, as well as for resilience against failure of any part.

Inmarsat claimed that “bringing together the lowest average latency and fastest average speeds with unique resilience”, Orchestra will eliminate the industry-wide challenge of congested network hotspots.” It remains to be seen whether that objective will be met and that depends on achieving the hoped-for scale and coverage.

Orchestra itself is pitched at “close-shore navigation for autonomous vessels, next generation emergency safety services for maritime crews, tactical private networks for governments, and direct-to-cloud connections for airlines”, according to the company. Commercial targets in these areas include rigs and drilling platforms, mid-market business aircraft, and coastal shipping vessels.

With its global GEO and LEO coverage, Orchestra is not of course confined to coastal locations for shipping, but that is where the terrestrial 5G aspect comes into play to yield the full benefits of the mesh. Elera then slots in by providing an evenly global platform, not just for IoT applications within those same aviation and shipping sectors targeted by Orchestra, but also emerging IoT use cases in autonomous transport, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) industrial and agricultural.

As Rajeev Suri, chief executive at Inmarsat, put it: “Elera is perfectly suited to the needs of the connected IoT world. Global reach, extraordinary resilience, faster speeds, smaller and lower cost terminals are all part of ensuring that we remain ahead of others in meeting the needs of our customers. Elera will transform the capabilities offered to IoT and mobility customers for years to come and confirms our long-term commitment to L-band services.”

Again, the validity of these claims is yet to be determined, but there is no doubting the ambition. In the short term though the company has had to weather a pandemic storm because of its position in aviation, where demand slumped catastrophically. The upshot was that revenues for 2020 were down 7.9% on 2019, over $100m less. On the positive front, revenues from US government grew by 10.1%, while shipping held up quite well. This suggests the focus on these sectors with IoT as well as the mesh global networking is at least sound.