Inmarsat to place GX Flex next-gen satellite system order this year

Space

WASHINGTON — British fleet operator Inmarsat is in the middle of a “very competitive procurement process” for GX Flex, its next-generation satellite system, CEO Rupert Pearce said March 7.

The satellite system, first discussed almost a year ago, will be markedly different from traditional communications satellite programs that often take three to four years to build and launch, he said.

Pearce, who has described Inmarsat as immune to the oversupply of satellite capacity afflicting other operators, said the satellite system Inmarsat intends to buy will solve what it views as more pressing problems: keeping pace with customer demand and not getting locked in to outdated technology.

“I am very confident what we will bring forward later in the year will be lower cost in absolute terms, higher agility, and [a] tremendous step change in capabilities without overcommitting to any particular year of technology,” Pearce said during an earnings call.  

Pearce said GX Flex will be a lower cost system compared to Inmarsat’s recent investments, enabling the company to reduce capital expenditures from an expected $500 million to $600 million in 2019 and 2020 to between $450 million and $550 million in 2021. GX Flex, Inmarsat’s next generation broadband network, will keep the company competitive “into the mid 2020s and well beyond,” he said.

In an interview following the call, Pearce gave little in the way of specifics about GX Flex, but said Inmarsat in no way feels obligated to stay in geostationary orbit.

“Some people think of the GEO operators as though they’ve got GEO tattooed on their chest or something, and you have to be messianic about one [orbit],” he said. “We are not like that at all.”

Regardless of orbit, GX Flex will be backwards compatible with Inmarsat’s existing satellite fleet, he said.

Pearce said Inmarsat’s priorities with GX Flex are that it has the “agility” to move megabits around its coverage for responsiveness to customers, and “velocity,” which he defined as an ability to rapidly integrate new technologies to future-proof networks.  

Mobility customers, such as airlines, maritime vessels and connected land vehicles, have more dynamic capacity needs than stationary customers such as consumer broadband households or enterprise businesses with remote facilities, Pearce said. He said Inmarsat is shifting away from stationary, or “fixed” broadband services, partly differentiating the company from competitors Viasat and Hughes in the United States, as well as OneWeb.

All of the world’s largest satellite operators have warmed to the idea of using satellites in lower orbits in recent years. Telesat is actively preparing a constellation of low Earth orbit broadband satellites, with the expectation of choosing between manufacturers Airbus Defence and Space and a team comprised of Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space later this year. SES operates 16 O3b broadband satellites in medium Earth orbit, and has four more launching on an Arianespace Soyuz this month, plus another seven under construction by Boeing. Eutelsat is preparing a low Earth orbit demonstration cubesat with Tyvak International, and Intelsat tried to merge with low Earth orbit startup OneWeb two years ago.

Pearce declined to say what orbit GX Flex will operate in, but said Inmarsat is “very open to non-GEO technology,” so long as it is effective at providing differentiated services and bringing value to customers.

“How you solve them with different types of technology I’m completely agnostic about,” he said. “I genuinely don’t care if in 10 years time Inmarsat is all GEO or all LEO or a mix of both or something in between.”

Inmarsat has three satellites, all geostationary, under development. Global Xpress 5 is slated to launch late this year, Pearce said. Arianespace is launching the Ka-band satellite from Thales Alenia Space on an Ariane 5 rocket.

The other two satellites, Inmarsat-6A and 6B, are projected to launch in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Airbus Defence and Space is building both satellites with high-throughput Ka-band and low-throughput L-band payloads.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a relative newcomer to the commercial launch market, is launching Inmarsat-6A on an H2A rocket in 2020. Inmarsat has yet to select a launch provider for Inmarsat-6B.

Pearce said Inmarsat could launch Inmarsat-6B on a Falcon Heavy rocket, since the company still has an unused launch option with SpaceX, but hasn’t committed the satellite to that vehicle.

Inmarsat originally planned to launch its European Aviation Network satellite on Falcon Heavy in 2016, but switched to an Ariane 5 after the SpaceX rocket experienced development delays.

Pearce said Inmarsat remains “very strong supporters of SpaceX” despite that setback, and “love[s] the development profile of the [Falcon] 9 and the [Falcon] Heavy.”

“Those three operators together give us tremendous high-quality access to space,” Pearce said of Arianespace, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and SpaceX.

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