Satellite services are in demand as sectors operating beyond the reach of GSM networks boom.
Satellite services are experiencing robust demand as sectors that operate beyond the reach of GSM networks boom.
Despite tough competition from the rapid development of GSM networks, satellite voice and data services remain a high growth sector, with some analysts estimating the industry is growing by more than 10% a year. With demand from sectors such as mining and shipping showing no signs of abating, satellite communication appears to have plenty of growth potential.
Companies involved in the sector have certainly been quick to respond to this demand. Last month, UAE-based satellite operator Thuraya launched its third satellite, Thuraya-3, as part of a plan to expand its coverage in Asia, while Inmarsat, a UK-based satellite operator, revealed that it will also launch a new satellite in 2008, to consolidate its Pacific coverage and to complement new voice and data services.
While demand for data services has been experiencing particularly strong growth, there has also been a steady growth in demand for mobile voice services.
As vice president of Inmarsat's operations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, Samer Halawi is well aware of the trend. Inmarsat, which has been involved in the satellite sector since 1979, is a relative newcomer to the voice handset sector. The company has traditionally earned most of its revenue from data services, but in the past year, it also moved into the handheld voice sector.
"Until this year we never had a handheld phone, we were always concentrating on more corporate units and the focus over the last decade has been on high speed data, because that market is growing in double digits while the market for hand held telephones is a consumable one," Halawi says.
Inmarsat launched its first hand held phone, with a version for land use and another for maritime for the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and parts of Europe - pitching the company more directly against one of its main rivals in the region, Thuraya.
"We introduced a new hand held satellite phone and the reason for this is that we wanted to complement our product offering so that our customers can have a one-stop-shop for all their mobile satellite communication needs.
Inmarsat currently has two latest generation "I4" satellites among its total of 11 satellites, and the company is planning to launch a third by the third quarter of 2008. Inmarsat's first two I4 satellites cover give coverage for about 85% of the world's surface, and the third satellite will allow the company to complement its coverage over the Pacific.
The I4 satellites will also be vital to Inmarsat's new handheld voice service. "We launched the hand held service over the first satellite, which covers the Middle East, most of Africa and most of Europe, and Asia up to Western Australia. That's the coverage that we have today," Halawi says. "However when we launched the service we started working on a programme to launch a full hand held service, and that will be available by the first quarter of 2009.
"By the first quarter of next year we will have a handheld service that will work on all three satellites, and we will also have a modernised handset with more capabilities. The experience of using an Inmarsat device, whether you are in Oregon, Chile or Dubai, will be the same.
Despite these developments, Halawi admits that while the overall voice sector is growing, it is also declining as a proportion of the companies business. "It decreases year on year. Today it is about 35%, a few years ago it was more like 50% so it has been decreasing steadily over the last few years," he says. "That is mainly because the demand for data has been increasing in double digits.
Inmarsat's customers include companies from various sectors, with maritime forming the bulk of the customer base. The sector is increasingly using e-commerce and email applications and many maritime clients also rely on data such as weather charts, and even information about which ports are paying the best rates for fish.