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Satellite comms edges to the mainstream

Inmarsat says forthcoming services will make satellite communications cheaper and more convenient, and bring it within reach of mainstream businessmen.

Inmarsat has two new services in the pipeline that it believes could take satellite communications from being an overpriced niche product to being a more mainstream business solution.

Later this year, Inmarsat will launch a service that will support wireless data transfer at a speed of 144 kbits/s. That will be followed in 2004 by another service that will support data transfers at 432 kbits/s. In comparison, Inmarsat’s fastest service today runs at 64 kbit/s, the equivalent of a conventional ISDN Internet connection.

As well as being faster, Inmarsat says pricing should also fall considerably when the new services are introduced.

“There was an image a few years ago of satellite communications being the communications of last resort,” Michael Butler, Inmarsat’s managing director, told ITP.net. “If you picked up the phone, it immediately cost ten dollars. That’s a misconception that we’re trying to dispel.”

Satellite communications services like Inmarsat’s have traditionally been a niche offering, serving those in remote areas without access to any other form of communication. Using satellites orbiting the earth, Inmarsat and a handful of other companies bring communications to places that aren’t covered by GSM and fixed telephone networks. Industries that typically use Inmarsat’s solutions are oil & gas, maritime and broadcast.

Because Inmarsat’s users tend to have no other alternative, and because they are relatively few in number, prices for voice and data calls made on Inmarsat’s network have been high at several dollars per minute. That should change, Butler says, because the new services will charge by the packet. In layman’s language, that means you’ll pay according to the amount of data you send, no matter how long it takes to send it, rather than paying for data by the minute. The bottom line, according to Butler, is that prices for data calls on the first of the new services will be, “about half the cost of data transmission today.”

Butler is quick to point out that Inmarsat hasn’t set out to be an alternative to GSM networks. But what he does believe is that Inmarsat’s solutions could eventually be a very viable option for traveling executives that don’t want to pay exorbitant roaming charges or hotel surcharges on phone calls. Instead, you’ll be able to carry around a small box that can double up as a telephone and a high speed modem.

As well as bringing down prices, Inmarsat also needs to do something about the hardware you need to use it services. Right now, that hardware is bulky and heavy but that should change with the new services. Even now, however, Butler promises that Inmarsat’s odd looking equipment will not attract the suspicion of customers officers in security conscious countries like Saudi Arabia.

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