Tag Archives: Iridium NEXT

Safety divided by competition won’t go

There have been some puzzling headlines in the past week or so following the decision by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to give recognition to the bid by satellite services provider Iridium to run the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

The IMO sub-committee on Navigation, Communications, Search and Rescue (NSCR) gave the nod to Iridium’s pitch, which will be subject to approval by the Maritime Safety Committee, though probably not before 2016.

It’s true to say that the surprise has been pretty evenly-distributed around the industry. Certainly, there will have been something close to bewilderment at the headquarters of INMARSAT, which runs GMDSS under mandate from the IMO and which will have been lobbying hard to get the proposal squashed.

The surprise in communications circles is largely due to the apparent mis-match between the requirement the IMO places on INMARSAT for GMDSS uptime of 99.99% and the performance of the existing Iridium network.

Despite its somewhat chequered history: a big launch, a spell in Chapter 11, rescue by the US Department of Defence, and resurgence as the appetite for low cost communications broke over shipping – ship owners like Iridium. The products themselves are cheap and cheerful; Iridium was among the first to identify the potential for what was then called “commodity voice communications” – selling handsets and airtime that could keep seafarers in touch at very low per minute rates.

This was because Iridium needed something to do with its global network of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in addition to the capacity that the US military was using. In time, data products followed and the same principle applied – they were cheap, easy to use and easy to fix when broken.

This was good for owners who didn’t want to spend a lot on their communications but just needed something on board. The data transfer rates weren’t high either but the owners weren’t necessarily worried.

Slightly more problematic was that its network of LEO satellites – rather more complex than a handset – had an equally creaky reputation in practice. Iridium’s engineers have done admirable work prolonging the working life of its constellation but even with the use of spares, outages are a regular occurrence. Since 2001, iridium has lost 10 satellites from its 66 strong constellation, nine from technical failures, one a collision.

Its fiercest critics say that in areas of greatest ship congestion, heavy demand results in the network being unable to cope and like a weak Wi-Fi signal in a conference room, the contention is such that no-one gets any service.

This must be subject to some question, since Iridium services still sell well, but no hardware manufacturer or service provider is likely to admit that any delicate shipboard technology, whether comms or navigation, is subject to operational failure. You have to talk to seafarers to get to hear that and normally they make you buy them lots of beer first.

But it is important in the light of the sub-committee’s decision because GMDSS is not a commercial service but rather a safety one, mandated by the IMO and one that all SOLAS ships are required to fit and maintain. For that to happen, the IMO demands a level of uptime that the current Iridium constellation appears unable to achieve.

No doubt Iridium is able to produce statistics that confirm it hits 99.99% availability, just as its rivals can produce data saying the opposite, but it is the spread between what its commercial service can manage and the IMO-mandated requirement that raises eyebrows.

Incumbent GMDSS operator INMARSAT has been left spluttering by the decision, which it presumably believes rather undermines the goals it has been set in providing GMDSS since 1979. INMARSAT has also formally unveiled its own evolution of GMDSS, called the Maritime Data Safety Service (MSDS) which will “upgrade” the service onto more its modern I-4 satellites.

Iridium plans a similar development and wants to launch an entirely new network, NEXT comprising 72 satellites from 2015 onwards, with service availability from 2017 onwards. Its key differentiator here is the polar coverage its current and future networks can provide and Inmarsat’s cannot. Iridium will need to get capacity utilisation on this new network too – it plans aeronautical in addition to maritime and land services for NEXT and will need to keep pace with the next generation VSAT and HTS services that will be in place by then.

It appears that the potential for ship traffic in the Polar Regions was among the swaying evidence considered at the IMO. Whether or not the growth potential of the Northern Sea Route is really enough to convince the MSC that this makes enough of a difference is questionable enough in itself. A recent survey by consultants PWC of German ship owners found that 60% saw no fresh opportunities from the NSR’s opening up.

What is far more dangerous surely is for any would-be operator to view GMDSS as a prize, an opportunity that has for too long been under the control of one of its rivals. Some of the coverage of the IMO decision (to say nothing of the comments on social media sites that specialise in pushing commercial interests over public ones) suggest just that.

No-one can credibly assert that Inmarsat has “control” of a service that it was created to deliver under the mandate of the IMO. GMDSS has nothing to do with commercial maritime services like broadband, VSAT or HTS. It is a public service dedicated to the safety of the world’s 1.5m seafarers.

Should the provision of such a service be subject to competition and to the vagaries of national interests? Or should any future decision instead be based on the facts and made in the light of day. Assuming that the IMO has not changed its baseline of 99.99% network uptime, does the proposed service meet the requirement or not?

My editor at BIMCO kindly added the following clarification to the article as published on its website.

Editor’s Note: The NCSR Sub-Committee agreed to invite the MSC to consider and decide on which independent body should produce a technical and operational assessment of the information and provide a report to the sub-committee for evaluation. Following receipt and evaluation of the assessment, the sub-committee would then make a recommendation to the MSC as to the adoption of an MSC resolution recognising the new maritime mobile satellite services provider.

M2M and mad cows – through the mobility looking glass

Can satellite ever really go mainstream? It’s a nice idea, but one that has already claimed some scalps among those who have modelled the concept only to find the reality rather different. Two of those (fully resuscitated) examples were present on the MSS CEO panel at Satellite 2014 along with Inmarsat and Thuraya. Iridium and Globalstar are these days talking a strong book with launches tabled and new services in the pipeline.

Even if the low cost satphone in your pocket remains something of a chimera, the session provided a useful glimpse of what the roadmap looks like for the mobility majors.

So much so in fact that Iridium CEO Matt Desch offered to double his bet with Globalstar’s Jay Monroe that his new network would be up and running before Globalstar’s – a wager he offered to settle in Iridium stock. He subsequently agreed that the NEXT schedule had slipped somewhat but insisted he was not in hurry, despite wanting to bring new services on. Such is the mirror world of mobility satellite.

Though rumours persist that Globalstar is waiting to be acquired by an internet company keen to use its spectrum rights for the delivery of more day to day goods and services, Monroe insisted that the potential to address a market unserved by cellular with a $100 product was still realistic.

Desch and Samer Halawi disagreed – the former probably through bitter experience – the latter because Thuraya’s BYOD play the SatSleeve has attracted so much attention by extending two already successful brands.

Halawi thought that lack of standardisation made it hard to achieve a consumer market opportunity Monroe thought was ‘worth millions’, though he again asserted that SatSleeve’s mission was to liven up a “somewhat dull MSS market”.

Desch agreed that low initial costs would always tend to rise and “making a commodity product that Best Buy would want to list for $30 would be hard to make a success for partners and channels too”.

Inmarsat’s Rupert Pearce has the new iSat 2 handheld in the game but said their model was enterprise users with heavier usage and better average revenue per user. “We are business to business and business to government. Consumer is a bridge too far.”

Away from the user the threat to all their businesses is the apparent desire of mobile phone operators to grab back spectrum it thinks mobile satellite is not using to its fullest extent, including the L-Band the industry ‘doesn’t need’ as it moves increasingly to Ku and Ka.

GVF has already done a lot of work on the political lobbying and Pearce was unequivocal. This was a bubble that needed to be burst “it will be hyper-politicised [at the ITU’s World Radio Council 15 meeting] and we need a coalition of the willing to lobby on the need for critical satellite services”. He didn’t add ‘rather than more leisure users’ but one sensed that’s what he meant.

Moderator Tim Farrar pondered by how much GX was delayed or on track – rather a moot point for maritime users – but important for the company’s reporting and financials. Despite suggestions of delays to the iDirect hub component, Pearce said the core equipment and satellites were aligned and said that “more than 30% of GX revenues were already committed, including the 1,000 XpressLink installs which are ready to move to GX”.

The surprise purchase of Globe Wireless is among a series of ‘quick buys’ Inmarsat has made to help its channel cover Ku to Ka conversions over first 18-24 months. He mentioned the Globe iFusion box as being a component of the value that Globe brings to Inmarsat, though  how that dovetails with the CISCO Router that lies at the heart of GX connectivity was not made clear.

For Desch, Iridium’s strategy remains little changed – evolutionary compatible products in which broadband remains an upside to the ‘low-end’ segment it serves, one he feels can grow further. Iridium he said would be providing new capability before its NEXT network is finished and speeds would increase too but “it’s not worth chasing commodity broadband because that market is going to look different in three to five years from how it looks now – we are going to take a bigger chunk of what we do with more capability”.

For Halawi, the future means considerations on how to design and build next generation satellites, though the Thuraya CEO insisted time was on his side. Thuraya has said for some time that its next generation concept is under development but it won’t be a ‘me-too’ system. “We are looking at future applications, how people will use technology 10 or 15 years from now and how technology can support that. There will be more clarity by next year but it won’t be a system similar to the ones being planned for today,” he said.

Pearce has new launches in mind too, but in this case he meant the Inmarsat I-6, the next generation of L-Band satellites to complement the GX service. He said its potential users understood that a dollar spent on better communications could deliver $10 into the enterprise and he also pointed out that most of Inmarsat customers won’t be moving to GX and will need to be supported by the i6 constellation.

Pearce was lightly pressed on Inmarsat’s E&E and FBB price rises over the past two years but insisted that prices had fallen by more than they had risen when compared to the newer FBB bundles. Calling the price rises ‘a win-win’ and a ‘virtuous cycle’ was probably pushing it for users and SPs who had been squeezed as a result, but the continued evidence of users ‘marching up the packages as they understand the value’ was as close as we would get to an explanation.

He must have known the channel question would be next and he suggested that indirect sales remained the priority, with direct sales reduced by 2% per over five years and a stronger focus on controlling where the company goes direct, primarily maritime GX where the learning curve is steep.  “We are trying to work out where network ends where channel adds value,” he said.

Desch countered that price rises had enabled Iridium to work with SPs and their end-users frustrated by lack of price control. Iridium has no desire to go direct he said, but the potential lack of trust in Inmarsat created a continuing opportunity.

Where the satellite industry certainly sees value is the M2M market, with acquisition and expansion on the slate for the MSS operators. Monroe memorably described this as ‘data heroin’ – with tracking as a gateway drug that led on to heavier and heavier usage.

Desch agreed on the growth potential but said ARPU was ‘more interesting than it is attractive’ and no-one would be making millions from M2M anytime soon. “We have natural advantages and we will see it grow but we need our standards to be compatible with what is being written in the terrestrial world.

Farrar quipped about projections for huge growth, everything from cargo monitoring to tracking cows in Brazil or sheep in Scandinavia. Monroe replied that this was far from a pipe dream.

“The projections are for tens of millions of units but there is a real example. Brazil spends millions every year trying to combat mad cow disease. Now, could you track the herds, segregate the infected stock and treat them? They are looking at it seriously.”

The internet of animals – it might have smelled like bullshit, but it was a suitably enigmatic note on which to ponder what the future would really look like for mobility and whether it would really that dull after all.