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inmarsat Covers the World

by R.E.Curtice

What happens to satellites when they die (expend their power)? They are sent to the satellite graveyard! That was one of the fascinating facts that Frank August, Director of Business Development - Americas at the satellite firm inmarsat, explained to us. A fortyish, well dressed man with the look of efficency and no-nonsense, he met with InsideRep at the Nabshow (National Association of Broadcasters)in Las Vegas to talk about the new Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) that inmarsat has rolled out. The firm inmarsat (INternational, MARitime, SATellite) inmarsat owns and operates a global satellite network and offers mobile satellite communications services for users in the maritime, land and aeronautical fields.

Can you give us a little background on inmarsat?

Sure. The firm inmarsat operates global mobile satellites who has been in business for thirty years now. We have been a satellite operator and over the course of those thirty years we have transformed ourselves from a maritime safety specialist to a pioneer in all aspects of mobile satellite communications. The equipment needed to do this has become more compact as time as has gone on. We have suppliers that build equipment to our specifications, while we operate the satellites, we sell service. The best analogy is that we are like a cellular operator, like an AT&T or Verizon, except they all have their structures on earth while we have it in the air, satellites. We have global coverage.

When we are talking to a customer in California we can guarantee that they can go anywhere in the world and have the service. It's just one big cellular network using satellites. Since our satellites are in geostationary orbit, we don't cover the North or South Poles.

You're here explaining your latest innovation?

The innovation we have now is that we have launched the last generation of satellites or which there are three, which are positioned over the equator to give us global coverage. But we have another ten satellites from previous generations that can do things for us. We provide communications for those companies who are out of touch of built-up areas. And there are a lot of operations that are beyond the edge of current communication networks.

Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) is a successor to Global Area Network, which was our previous service. The connection device was well over thirty pounds, not as light as the one we have here. You can tell where the satellites are in the sky and you can tell where they are by using a Geiger-counter beeper. You then set up this antenna.

It is an on-demand system, you pay for what you use. Rates are very reasonable and the telephone-voice service is on a per minute basis.

The company Astrium builds the satellites for us. All three of our satellites were launched near the equator, one from a company that is a consortium of a Russian company and Boeing. They are launched from the equator because of the earth's spinning, it has more of an angular velocity which means a higher weight payload than could be launched from say the North Pole.

How long do these satellites last and what happens to them when they are depleted?

A good question. Fifteen, sixteen or eighteen years. Once you get them up, the tough part is design, build, launch and then turn on, once you past all those milestones it will operate for a long while. Then there is the problem when it runs out of fuel. We do the station keeping from our offices in London where engineers fire rocket bursts to keep the satellite on station because over time they will wobble out of their location and we have the obligation to keep them in our orbital slot.

Every burst of the rocket we take is measured and recorded so we know exactly how much fuel is left. The limiting factor of the satellite life is the fuel. When we know we are almost out of fuel, we fire some rockets and push it out from earth into what is known as a graveyard orbit. It's pushed out, out of the way. It's way above 22,000 miles away so we aren't in the low earth orbit, we aren't by GPS satellites, or reconn or spy satellites, we are well beyond that in the geo-stationary belt. The International Telecommunication Union assigned all these slots. And there are a lot of satellites out there.

All the satellites are mapped. All those in orbit or in the graveyard are mapped. Incidentally, the satellites in the graveyard go on forever. There is no atmosphere so they just float there. It's not a very "green" approach just having the satellites up there.

The exciting part about BGAN is that it works anywhere in the world, except the North and South Poles. We have a super new maritime equipment that works anywhere on the sea. Actually has a directional antenna because if you think about it, even though the satellites aren't moving with respect to us, the boat does move. It's another portfolio and it's called Fleet Broadband. ||