Iridium to launch next-gen satellites


Iridium Communications is preparing to launch a new satellite network starting in 2015 that the company claims will provide clearer voice calls and faster downloads on vessels.

Iridium, known for its OpenPort maritime broadband systems, expects to begin launching its Iridium NEXT satellites starting in 2015. The $3 billion system upgrade should be fully operational about two years later.

Brian Pemberton, Iridium’s director of product management, said the new network will offer true broadband capabilities and cost up to 50 percent less than competitors.

“The price point to get into broadband connectivity today (is in) the $20,000 and up range,” Pemberton said. “We are thinking that products enabled by Iridium NEXT will shatter that floor and reduce that entry point dramatically.”

OpenPort terminals currently offer baseline data download speeds of about 128 kilobits per second (Kbps), which allows for some light Web surfing, e-mail and other basic services. Iridium expects available download speeds will increase to 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) once the new system is up and running.

The NEXT system, like the OpenPort service, will have true global coverage. It will be “backward compatible,” meaning it will work with existing Iridium terminals and antennas.

Taken together, the company believes the new network will significantly expand the market for maritime broadband.

Iridium currently has 66 satellites and several spares orbiting in 435-mile low Earth orbits. It’s planning to replace existing satellites and improve ground stations.

The first of Iridium’s next-generation satellites will be launched on Russian rockets. However, most will be carried into orbit on SpaceX rockets launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Iridium, of McLean, Va., isn’t the only satellite communications firm upgrading its satellite network. Inmarsat, which offers the popular FleetBroadband network, will begin launching Global Xpress satellites later this year. The $1.5 billion initiative will offer global coverage and download speeds of up to 50 Mbps.

Inmarsat’s existing broadband service, FleetBroadband, offers faster speeds than Iridium’s OpenPort system, but the antennas cost nearly twice as much. FleetBroadband doesn’t work in the Arctic or Antarctic.

Satellite industry consultant Alan Gottlieb, of Gottlieb International Group, said the NEXT system will be more reliable than Iridium’s OpenPort service. Meanwhile, the company stands to benefit from Inmarsat’s planned March 1 price increase that could raise data usage rates by 30 percent.

“The new NEXT will be very good, and it will have speeds up to 1.5 Mbps in the L-band,” Gottlieb said. “And if they price it right, it will have a big hit on Inmarsat’s low-end market.”

Frank Coles, director of Inmarsat’s maritime business, did not directly respond to Gottlieb’s assertions about pricing or competition between the two companies. However, he said Inmarsat is well-positioned with FleetBroadband and Global Xpress to “meet the growing customer requirement for higher bandwidth and data at sea.”

“Global Xpress will combine ultra-high bandwidth and exceptional service quality with global coverage and seamless mobility, Coles said. “Vessels will have access to data speeds of up to 50 Mbps through a 60- to 100-cm antenna, up to 50 times faster than speeds Iridium NEXT can deliver.”

Iridium wouldn’t say what the NEXT service will cost and how will it be priced. But Gottlieb expects the company will charge customers based on a metered-usage model rather than an “all you can eat” unlimited plan.

“It’s almost certain that they are going to charge on the megabit of use,” Gottlieb said. “This is not going to be competitive with flat-rate VSAT (broadband systems).”

Iridium hasn’t announced any Iridium NEXT-ready products yet. The devices won’t be on the market until at least 2015.

By Ocean Navigator