Inmarsat's Global Broadband Lifts Off

Six years in the making, the service offers simultaneous voice and data and, for now, covers Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

LONDON — Satellite network operator Inmarsat has officially switched on its broadband service, dubbed BGAN. The Broadband Global Area Network is targeted at users in locations with unreliable telecoms infrastructure as well as enterprises.

Six years in development, the service will offer simultaneous voice and data at rates up to 492kbit/s, with the option of transmission speed guaranteed at up to 256kbit/s.

For the moment, the service is limited to the footprint of the first of the operators’ I-4 satellites, which was launched in March and covers Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It will be extended in the middle of next year to North and South America when the second of the fourth generation satellites, launched last month, is tested and fully commissioned.

This will give coverage for 85 percent of the world’s land mass, and a third satellite is being readied for launch to extend the service to Inmarsat’s traditional clientele in the global maritime and aeronautical communications sector.

Inmarsat says the I-4 satellites are the most advanced commercially used satellites launched, with expectionally long life times and the abilty to dynamically allocate beams wherever required.

For the initial launch, terminals are available from Norwegian group Nera Satcom, the World Pro 1000, which at 1kg and about half the size of a laptop is the smallest in the range, and Danish company Thrane & Thrane, whose Explorer 500 weighs just below 1.5kg.

Hughes Network Systems will soon be offering a multi-user device, the HNS9201, to be followed soon after by an entry-level terminal from Singapore design group Addvalue Communications.

The terminal suppliers say they already have 15,000 orders between them.

Inmarsat says the terminals are extremely easy to connect up using wired or wireless connections, including Bluetooth for the voice service and 802.11b for data links.

Thrane & Thrane has also developed a Radio Access Network controller for the system, while Ericsson has been chosen as the supplier for a UMTS 3G compatible terrestrial core network. "BGAN is probably our most significant revenue growth opportunity in a decade, and represents a $1.5bn investment", said Michael Butler, Inmarsat's Chief Operating Officer.

The cost of transferring one megabyte of data from anywhere in the world is put at between $4 to $7, while a voice call is expected to cost under $1 a minute.

"If you take your laptop with a 3G datacard on it, you will pay nearly three times that per megabtye when you are roaming," said Butler.

Inmarsat, which was set up as an intergovernmental organization in 1979 to provide communications to the global maritime community, said BGAN would be cheaper compared with traditional satellite communications, and in some cases cheaper than regular mobile communications. It is now a private company quoted on the London stock exchange following an IPO earlier this year.

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