Two weeks ago, Inmarsat unveiled its plans for Orchestra, a new communications network. According to the company’s press release, it will seamlessly integrate GEO, LEO and terrestrial 5G for mobility applications. My colleagues, Joshua Flood and Craig Foster, recently published their own thoughts on the implications of Inmarsat Orchestra for the maritime and business aviation segments. In this write-up I put forward a point of view on how significant the LEO and 5G elements of Orchestra are to commercial carriers and In-Flight Connectivity (IFC).
It was Inmarsat’s intent to enter the LEO race that generated most of the headlines in the aftermath of the Orchestra announcement. However, the associated funding is not currently part of an initial $100 million wave of investment that is to be spent over the next 5 years and the expected constellation size of 150-175 satellites is arguably symbolic of a company looking to dip its toe into LEO rather than jump in headfirst. That makes sense considering Inmarsat is about to enter a significant period in the development of its global Ka- and L-band networks. No fewer than seven GEO satellites are scheduled for launch between now and 2024. These payloads include two that will deliver dedicated coverage over the Artic region and three which possess dynamic beamforming capabilities to distribute capacity where it’s needed most.
I’d argue 2026 represents a best-case scenario for an Inmarsat LEO network entering service. It’s easy to see that timeframe sliding to the right, given current projections for long-haul travel. There’s also an added consideration for existing airline customers of needing to swap out the Honeywell JetWave GX terminal to a LEO-ready solution which will require additional CAPEX and grounding of aircraft. The point here is that although an exciting prospect, the LEO element of Orchestra is not expected to influence IFC in the short to mid-term and it doesn’t look like existing GX customers will be offered a seamless transition in any case.
There is a lot more certainty around the terrestrial 5G component of Inmarsat Orchestra, but I believe it will have a bigger impact on the organisation’s maritime and land mobility business as opposed to commercial aviation. We aren’t about to see Inmarsat building multiple ATG networks to the scale of the European Aviation Network. The operator will instead construct smaller networks to add to capacity available in hot spots, such as airports. Potential benefits for airlines include increased quality of service around airport hubs and being able to source air and ground connectivity services from a single supplier. Again, customers will need to install additional kit to take advantage of the terrestrial 5G network.
Given the above it’s reasonable to ask what are the genuine benefits of Inmarsat Orchestra for commercial airlines? Based on what we know today, I’d put forward a couple:
Unveiled two weeks after Orchestra, ELERA is Inmarsat’s enhanced L-Band network powered by capacity on the soon-to-launch I-6 satellites which will see speeds increase to 1.7Mbps thanks to improvements made to the satellite and onboard hardware. Furthermore, Inmarsat has alluded to some existing customers not needing to swap out antennas as part transitioning to ELERA, although a firmware update will be required. The improved speed of ELERA and discrete nature of the new hardware has clear advantages for business aviation clients, but there are also benefits for commercial airlines, specifically in facilitating operational and safety-based connectivity applications. Live customer trials of ELERA in commercial aviation are scheduled to start in 2022.
For me, the most important takeaway from the Orchestra announcement was that Inmarsat has delivered a timely message to a market that is in the early phases of a very disruptive era. Putting the pandemic to one side, airlines are undoubtedly curious around the LEO story and one-by-one Inmarsat’s global competitors have revealed their hand by either pivoting to or aligning with a LEO or MEO play; SES through its O3b MEO constellation, Viasat confirming its own LEO constellation and Eutelsat very recently acquiring a 24% stake in OneWeb.
The pressure had been growing for Inmarsat to make a move and Orchestra’s unveiling gives the operator something to leverage as part of reassuring new and existing carriers that it possesses an agile service roadmap beyond GEO should it be needed.
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