Inmarsat to build low-orbit satellite 5G mesh network

Inmarsat to build low-orbit satellite 5G mesh network

29 July 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Satellite company Inmarsat has announced plans for a combined terrestrial and in-orbit 5G network aimed at high-density users and the maritime market.

Inmarsat said this morning that it plans to spend around US$100 million over the next five years on a dynamic mesh network, which it is calling Orchestra. It will combine terrestrial services with low Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous (GEO) satellites.

Rajeev Suri (pictured), the former Nokia boss who became CEO of Inmarsat earlier this year, said: “We plan to focus initially on delivering the Orchestra terrestrial network, while preparing for a future LEO constellation in the range of 150-175 satellites.”

He said: “This is a highly cost-effective approach that leverages Inmarsat’s leading GEO satellite networks as part of Orchestra’s unique multi-layer architecture.”

Inmarsat has not disclosed how it will work with existing 5G operators in terms of both spectrum and licensing – or whether it will have a wholesale relationship with mobile operators in order to sell services in its target market.

It identified its likely customers as ports, airports and the military.

Orchestra will bring together Inmarsat’s existing geosynchronous satellites with new LEO satellites “and terrestrial 5G into an integrated, high-performance solution”, said the company.

“Whether for a ship in a crowded port, an aircraft preparing to land at LAX, or a defence force deployed in a remote location, Orchestra is designed to meet evolving connectivity needs in the mobility market with a service unmatched by any competitor offering, planned or in existence.”

It said its existing GEO satellites “will continue to provide global coverage, high performance, security and resilience”, alongside terrestrial 5G, which “adds ultra-high capacity in busy ‘hot spots’, such as ports, airports, and sea canals”.

The LEO constellation will be “small” – just 175 maximum, compared with OneWeb’s first phase, which will have 648 by 2022, and SpaceX’s Starlink, which plans many thousand.

This “small constellation of LEO satellites will layer additional high capacity over further high-demand areas such as oceanic flight corridors”, said Inmarsat this morning. “As a result, the network will offer the highest capacity for mobility users worldwide, and at ‘hot spots’.”

Suri said: “By combining the distinct qualities of GEO, LEO and 5G into a single network, we will deliver a service that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Our customers will benefit from dramatically expanded high throughput services around the world. This is the future of connectivity and Inmarsat is perfectly positioned to bring it to the world with its proven technology expertise, right base of customers and partners, and financial strength.”

The dynamic mesh technology will allow “individual customer terminals to direct traffic to and from other customer terminals”, said the company.

“This means that a ship within reach of a 5G ground station can receive ample capacity for its own needs as well as route capacity onwards to other vessels beyond terrestrial reach. This effectively creates a mobile web of terminals that extend the network’s reach and improve its performance and resilience.”