Thuraya broadens aim

Thuraya looks to new markets, following the recent launch of its second satellite.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  June 30, 2003

|~||~||~|Thuraya, the satellite mobile operator, is looking to diversify its services and expand its geographical reach after the recent launch of its second satellite, Thuraya-2.

The US$1billion, 5,177kg spacecraft lifted off from the Pacific Ocean on 10th June and will provide back-up to Thuraya’s first satellite, which was sent into space in October 2000.

Once it is operational, the operator says Thuraya-2 will allow it to handle another 13,750 simultaneous mobile-to-mobile voice calls, giving it ample room for growth in markets such as the UAE, where its current capacity is sometimes stretched.

Its launch will also allow Thuraya to look beyond its current area of focus — the Middle East, Europe, North and Central Africa, and Central and South Asia.

“[Thuraya-2] will open up new directions of growth, whether we want to bolster capacity in some areas, expand into new markets or diversify into new satellite-based applications,” says Mohammed Omran, Thuraya’s chairman.

The operator, which has pursued a mainly voice-centric revenue model so far, is also considering using Thuraya-2 as a platform for the launch of GPRS-type mobile services, such as faster access to email and corporate networks.

This would put it up against rival operator Inmarsat, which has staked its bid for short-to-medium term growth on its 144Kbits/s data service, Regional BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network), for which it leases capacity from Thuraya in the Middle East. “Both [Thuraya’s] satellites are designed mainly for voice and GSM-like services,” says Yousuf Al Sayed, Thuraya’s chief executive. “But we are studying adding some kind of GPRS service. The [second] satellite is capable [of] medium-speed data,” he points out.

Thuraya is also working with manufacturer and stakeholder Boeing, as well as other companies, to come up with a technical solution to add GPRS. “The satellite is capable of handling [GPRS]. That capability should be coming out fairly soon,” says Ehab Shihabi, Boeing’s regional director for integrated defence systems in the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan.

But with its user base standing at 148,000 at the time of the launch, the operator says it will take a cautious approach to launching GPRS. “When the time is right, we will go for it. I believe, once we reach around 250,000 to 300,000 [subscribers], GPRS would be very feasible,” claims Al Sayed.

In the meantime, the operator is focusing on expanding its existing subscriber base, in preparation for when the satellite goes live. This will see it concentrating on improving its voice offering, and attracting subscribers to its value-added services such as those based on user location. Other ventures scheduled for the coming weeks will include satellite-enabled payphones and applications targeted at the aeronautical sector.

Meanwhile, Al Sayed adds that the ongoing process of readying Thuraya-2 will see it settle into geo-synchronous orbit, while its solar panels and reflectors will be deployed over the next few weeks. The operator then intends to embark on a series of tests to make sure all the systems are fully operational, before the process of handing traffic over from Thuraya-1 to Thuraya-2 will begin.

Although Thuraya concedes that the commercial lifespan of its first satellite will be cut short by power loss problems, Al Sayed supports the decision to launch a larger model, saying Thuraya-2’s increased capacity will allow the operator to support more subscribers and target new territories.

“We need flexibility — the market changes so quickly so we have to have some kind of dynamic features on board,” he argues. The operator claims Thuraya-2 will be operational for another 12 years.

Thuraya has also not held back from further investments, despite the additional capacity afforded by the new craft. Its third satellite, included in a deal signed with Boeing last year, is already in production. “Thuraya-3 is being manufactured as we speak, and we expect it to be completed sometime next year,” says Shihabi.

And despite its problems, Al Sayed says the first satellite will not necessarily be abandoned. “Thuraya-1 will last until about mid-2005, but we will do our best to extend its life for other purposes,” he says.

“We could use it for scientific purposes and to test new services. The engineers could have fun with it,” Al Sayed suggests.
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