Inmarsat Broadband Satellite Service Gets FCC Nod

Global satellite operator Inmarsat says that the FCC has granted the necessary licenses for its new broadband satellite communications system to be marketed in the U.S., where it hopes to find adoption among public-safety agencies as well as broadcast news crews looking for an ultra-light satellite link.

Inmarsat has spent $1.5 billion developing the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) system, which uses compact satellite uplink terminals that connect to a laptop and provide up to half-a-megabit (.5 Mbps) of broadband throughput. With two L-band frequency satellites positioned above Brazil and the Indian Ocean, BGAN currently provides broadband connectivity across 85% of the world’s landmass.

Last Friday, the FCC approved five North American distribution partners to offer BGAN, including BT, FTMSC, MVS, Stratos / Xantic and Telenor. BGAN, which promises “quality of service” live streaming at 256 kilobits-per-second, has been available overseas since January. The BGAN terminals, which weigh as little as five pounds and are built by manufacturers such as Hughes, cost around $3,000. Transmission pricing ranges from $3 to $7 per megabyte, says Inmarsat COO Michael Butler.

BGAN represents a significant technological leap from satellite phones, which only offer 64 kbps of throughput from a single terminal and require multiple units to be tied together to send higher-quality video feeds. Butler says that news organizations like CNN and the BBC are already using BGAN to transmit video, as well as to handle more mundane tasks like checking email, performing research on the Internet or making a voice-over-IP phone call. The BGAN terminal also provides Wi-Fi connectivity for up to ten users, allowing news crews to maximize the use of the broadband link back home.

The challenges posed last September by Hurricane Katrina to both emergency workers and news crews trying to cover the disaster pointed out the need for better portable communications in inhospitable conditions, says Butler. With the hurricane season approaching, he believes the timing is right for BGAN’s entry into the U.S. market.

“You can do everything you need through BGAN,” says Butler. “And with the higher data rate, a network can go full screen [with the transmission feed], and it is watch-able.”