Inmarsat, Boeing team on Ka-band Internet service

 - September 21, 2010, 9:59 AM

Inmarsat announced plans to introduce by 2014 a Ka-band satellite broadband service that would be far faster, cost less per megabit and require smaller antennas than competing Ku-band services.

Offering a blistering 50 megabit-per-second maximum data rate in flight, Inmarsat’s Global Xpress service is sure to give pause to anyone who had been thinking about equipping with a Ku-band satellite data system.

And that’s precisely the idea. The Inmarsat I-5 network will consist of three Boeing-built satellites, each with 89 fixed spot beams capable of satiating the needs of even the most Web-addicted passengers. Word that the Global Xpress service will be available in a mere four years will certainly play into airline executives’ plans to equip with broadband Internet capability. The promised small size of the Ka antennas, meanwhile, is sure to pique the interest of business jet OEMs.

Inmarsat last month signed a contract with Boeing for three 70H2P Ka-band satellites for the $1.4 billion I-5 network. Under a separate agreement, Boeing will become a distribution partner for Inmarsat’s Ka- and L-band mobile satellite services and has agreed to buy capacity representing more than 10 percent of Inmarsat’s target Ka-band revenues in the first five years after launch. Inmarsat is targeting $500 million in annual revenue for the service by 2020.

Inmarsat’s current SwiftBroadband service is neither swift nor a true broadband service given its maximum data rate is 432 kilobits per second. Still, the 50 Mbps claim comes with a caveat, as Inmarsat says it will deliver that speed to terminals “as small as 60 centimeters” or about 24 inches. That doesn’t seem out of the realm of technological feasibility for most business jets, but time will tell what the true data rates of the Global Xpress service turn out to be. Inmarsat officials have said the service will be capable of delivering 10 Mbps to handheld mobile terminals.

If you think the name of Inmarsat’s new in-flight entertainment system sounds a lot like a certain ultra-long-range business jet built in Canada, you’re not alone. Privately, some Bombardier officials are also wondering why Inmarsat chose the name considering its similarity to the Global Express, which is also fast, but in a different way.

But the bigger story to emerge from the launch of the I-5 satellite constellation will likely be Boeing’s involvement in the project after the demise of the Connexion by Boeing Ku-band satellite Internet service in 2006. That endeavor failed in the market largely due to economics. The hardware was bulky and expensive, and the service cost more than $1 billion to develop.

Designers of the Global Xpress service are mindful of past missteps. Ka-band encompasses the spectrum between 26.5 and 40 GHz. Ku-band, which lies between 12 and 18 GHz, can’t match its bandwidth. Given such limitations, and the pairing of Inmarsat and Boeing on a serious Ka project, the introduction of Global Xpress could put a major crimp in plans by current Ku-band service providers.