Broadband for bizav inches closer after satellite launch

 - September 25, 2006, 1:12 PM

The successful launch of the second Inmarsat-4 communications satellite late last year brings the introduction of SwiftBroadband airborne high-speed-data capability one step closer to reality.

Inmarsat has been concentrating on operational tests of the two I-4 satellites in orbit, which together will provide voice calling and data coverage over the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, much of the Asia-Pacific region and Western Australia. A third I-4 satellite positioned over the Pacific Ocean would complete the constellation, although Inmarsat has yet to announce a firm launch date.

Satellite number two was deployed at an in-orbit test location, where its payload had been undergoing systems checks. Inmarsat said customers of “classic” aeronautical services–Aero H/H+, Aero I and Aero L–will benefit from the increased network capacity of the new satellites.

About the size of a London double-decker city bus, this second I-4 satellite was launched by a Ukranian-built rocket from the Boeing Sea Launch mobile platform stationed in the Pacific Ocean. Inmarsat noted that one of the first critical phases of the I-4 satellite’s deployment was completed on November 17 when its nine-meter-wide reflector “bloomed” like a giant flower in outer space. Once the three I-4 satellites are fully operational, these reflectors will relay busy streams of commercial traffic to a variety of receivers on the Earth’s surface.

Some users in Europe are already experiencing the increased data rates of Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network, the land mobile service that is being branded as SwiftBroadband for the aeronautical market. As the name implies, the service will provide high-speed data (up to 432 kbps per channel) to aircraft flying anywhere coverage is available.

The current Swift64 data service from Inmarsat provides rates up to 64 kpbs per channel. Coverage areas for SwiftBroadband will be similar to those of Swift64, which blankets about 85 percent of the planet, with coverage gaps mainly near the poles.

Inmarsat anticipates that many airlines and business jet operators will quickly upgrade to the SwiftBroadband service, which besides having the advantage of faster data rates might also wind up being less expensive than Inmarsat’s current data service.

Inmarsat has yet to announce service pricing, but it has strongly hinted that the cost of accessing the Internet over the SwiftBroadband network will be less than what customers are paying now with Swift64, generally in the $8 to $10 per megabyte range.

With 19 regional beams and 228 high-power spot beams per satellite, the I-4s will support all aeronautical services that are currently handled by various other Inmarsat satellites, including Aero I, H, H+ and Swift64.

SwiftBroadband will also support new cellular telephone service under development, which Inmarsat has been strongly supporting. Inmarsat was part of a GSM cellphone service demonstration recently aboard a Boeing 777 on a nonstop 12,500-mile trip from Hong Kong to London.

On the flight, passengers were allowed to place calls and send text messages on their cellphones, which were connected to mobile networks through Inmarsat satellites. Inmarsat partner AeroMobile provided the technology for the trial, which used the Aero H and H+ calling services.

Lars Ringertz, head of marketing and aeronautical services for Inmarsat, said the company has enjoyed a good couple of years with the growth of its Swift64 service, the launch of two new satellites last year and several announcements from partners AeroMobile and OnAir about in-flight GSM cellphone services. “And now we are starting to preview SwiftBroadband,” he said.

Inmarsat provided demonstrations of SwiftBroadband at the Dubai Air Show in November and will soon begin similar demos for potential customers in the U.S. and Europe. The full complement of SwiftBroadband services is expected to be available by year-end, Ringertz said.