Paris Air Show

Iridium expanding services to compete with Inmarsat

 - June 17, 2007, 6:09 AM

Satellite communications provider Iridium is inching closer to obtaining ICAO and FAA approvals permitting airlines use of its service for transmitting safety-of-flight messages to ATC on oceanic routes and over the North Pole.

An aeronautical working group consisting of government, industry and airline members has approved Iridium’s plan for providing aeronautical mobile satellite route services (commonly referred to as AMSRS), which now heads to an Arinc standards panel for review.

Once all the approvals are in hand, expected sometime next summer, Iridium would become only the second authorized provider of AMSRS safety service messaging behind Inmarsat, which has held a lock on the market until now. Airlines are eager for the arrival of a second service provider. Iridium calls are less expensive than Inmarsat’s and the Iridium network of 66 low-earth-orbit satellites provides global coverage even on Polar routes.

Iridium does not expect to erode Inmarsat’s market dominance in the AMSRS arena overnight, however. Installing Iridium transceivers and antennas across a fleet of airplanes is not a trivial cost and will have to mesh with regular airline budgeting cycles, meaning that there will likely be a steady flow of hardware installations over a long period of time rather than a mass exodus of customers, Iridium officials predict.

“We don’t anticipate there will be a big bang of uptake,” said Iridium director of data services David Wigglesworth. “It will probably start with the cargo airlines and then migrate to other segments.” Polar coverage will be an important factor for airlines that have determined they can save time and fuel by flying over the North Pole on certain routes. Inmarsat’s satellite network, consisting of four (soon to be reduced to three) geostationary satellites “parked” in orbit 24,000 miles in space, has coverage gaps at the poles.