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Mobile Satellite Communications - The View From NSSL
Year In Review
by Sally-Anne Ray, Sales Director, NSSL

2007 certainly was an exciting year in the satellite industry, and not just because it has been 50 years since the launch of Sputnik by the former Soviet Union. There was the commercial distribution of BGAN, which was extremely exciting as thousands of new users received the opportunity to use the most up to date communications equipment. Mergers and acquisitions were rife and Fleet Broadband was launched.

Looking ahead, 2008 promises to be an even more exciting year. Inmarsat is adjusting its constellation, Fleet Broadband take up is expected to be huge, and, of course, the long awaited Beijing Olympics will occur—with communications technology likely to play a big part in the event coverage.

2006 will be remembered for the launch of BGAN, and for good reason. BGAN was the major technological development in decades, bringing a level of communications capability to ordinary individuals and businesses as never before experienced. The system has made a big splash, with individuals, the media, military, aid organizations, adventurers and oil companies—they are buying the equipment in droves. As a result, at the close of 2006 and during the first six months of 2007, work was largely taken up with stabilizing the BGAN innovations of early 2006.

BGAN was but one of the big developments during 2007. There was significant consolidation in the industry. APAX bought Telenor Satellite Services, BC Partners bought Intelsat and NSSL bought TET Satellite Solutions. What drove all this consolidation? Broadly speaking, it all comes down to money. Operators need to start pushing out new products and services if they want to remain competitive. The latest equipment doesn’t come inexpensively.

Consolidation allows companies to pool their resources, wealth, capacity and expertise so the latest systems can be acquired. Those companies unable to maintain viability are likely to fall by the wayside. Look at GlobalStar. The company has an “official” funding gap of $150 million and rumors are rife they will be taken over by Iridium. Demand for Iridium handhelds remains strong, but even they have issues. Iridium urgently needs to invest in new satellites, but with estimates that such will cost between $1.8 and $2 billion, such a funding allocation seems “shaky”.

Another big issue for the satellite industry in 2007 was the confrontation with International Mobile Telecommunications (ITU) networks, which have recently been trying to muscle in on the prized C-band spectrum. For over 40 years, this has been dedicated to the satellite industry, which has given the sector the assurance needed to maintain investments. Over the last few months, however, IMT networks have been using C-band capacity, especially in the Asian market, and that has caused problems for satellite operators.

The good news is that at the 2007 World Radio Communication Conference (which is part of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union), where 191 Member States assemble every four years to work out the rules by which countries get to use the radio frequency spectrum, there was a ruling that this frequency belonged exclusively to satellite operators.

This was an extremely positive development for the industry as the decision ensures operators will have adequate bandwidth to roll out future services. Andrew Sukawaty, Chairman and CEO of Inmarsat, best summed up the industry’s feelings following the ruling. He said, “Their decision to protect the C-band will enable us to continue offering essential communications to mobile users where terrestrial networks cannot reach, including aeronautical and maritime safety services.”

Another great development in 2007 was the continued growth in the military-satellite sector. Demand from Western nations, especially the US and UK, who are engaged in intensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been particularly strong. The US defense budget has grown massively under the Bush Administration, reaching a record $459 billion a years—and this excludes extra money for the ongoing wars. The satellite industry has benefited hugely from this extra demand for remote communications. Stratos and iDirect have secured many contracts within this industry segment. In fact, those companies have had to establish specific departments to deal exclusively with their military-government contracts.

What does 2008 hold? Inmarsat’s FleetBroadband service will be launched to market, with the first few months of the year witnessing providers selling the product and dealing with any of the hitches that usually accompany any new service. Inmarsat will also be kept busy with the biggest ever re-jigging of its satellite constellation. Inmarsat is also launching the 2G version of its popular handset, the ISAT phone, which will be welcome news to its many users and BGAN is likely to continue its popularity.

The good news is satellite operators are continuing to invest in their products and with Thuraya launching its first mobile broadband system and NSSL expanding and enhancing its fixed broadband offering. The Beijing Olympics take place in August, which will be interesting as it is the first Games since BGAN was released. The world’s media will certainly have fun using it! The gap left by Boeing Connexions will continue to be filled by innovative service providers such as NSSL who continue to expand and grow their next generation broadband services, like CruiseIP and BroadIP.

All in all, 2007 was a busy and important year. New technology was stabilized and launched, the military sector continued to boom, and the satellite industry protected itself against potential problems by consolidating and providing innovative new services. 2008 will likely be just as exciting, if not more so. I can’t wait. Happy New Year from NSSL!

Sally-Anne Ray is the Sales Director at NSSL Ltd. The company is an independent service provider for satellite communications solutions, and one of the top Inmarsat service providers worldwide. With a wide range of services and extensive experience of systems integration and application development, NSSL is strong in the maritime, government, energy, media, finance and corporate sectors and provides voice, data and broadband solutions anywhere in the world.

Established in 1969, NSSL plays a key role in developing new systems and applications for the Inmarsat network. Based in Redhill, Surrey, NSSL has 60 employees and a network of agents and engineers worldwide to provide service support to our global customer base.