Satellite telecoms company Inmarsat has cut a deal with Indonesian counterpart Asia Cellular Satellite International that takes it into the handheld satellite telephony market.
The agreement with Jakarta-based Asia Cellular Satellite International (ACeS) involves Inmarsat’s fourth generation of satellites, the I-4 series, which currently consists of two craft, I-4 F1 covering Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and I-4 F2 covering the Americas. A third in the series, the F3, will have a footprint covering the Pacific, and Inmarsat said it is already fully built and tested and is currently in storage, with plans to launch in the coming months.
ACeS has a subscriber base of some 14,000 on both land and sea in and around its home country, using satellite phone services over its Garuda 1 satellite, which was launched in February 2000. It was designed specifically for handheld telephony, to which end ACeS signed up with Sweden’s LM Ericsson Telefon for the handset and Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems for the craft and base stations. The problem, according to industry sources, was that its solar panel was incorrectly positioned and could only operate at half power and in a smaller footprint than originally envisaged.
The deal with Inmarsat is designed to solve those problems. A spokesperson for London, UK-based Inmarsat said the agreement initially covers the I-4 F1, which will serve initially as backup, and as the UK operator upgrades its own base station infrastructure, an extension to ACeS’s own footprint with Garuda.
Beyond that, another nine-month upgrade to the ground stations of I-4 F2 will enable the service to be rolled out to the Americas, and while ACeS and Inmarsat will split the revenue 50/50 from existing ACeS customers and any others it signs up in its territory, the same handheld telephony service with the same analog phone but an Inmarsat logo will be offered in the operator’s entire footprint, including, ultimately, the still-to-be-launched third craft’s.
The deal solves ACeS’s headache with its underperforming own satellite, and at the same time jumpstarts Inmarsat’s entry into handheld telephony over its latest generation of craft. It will also see ACeS resell the BGAN laptop-based digital access service Inmarsat launched last December. In addition to data traffic, BGAN can also carry VoIP and video, but the ACeS service takes Inmarsat into services based on dedicated analog phones, to which end it must upgrade its ground network to handle the different type of traffic.
The Inmarsat spokesperson said BGAN is charged at $1 a minute and the expectation is for the voice calling service to be roughly the same. Airlines Ryanair and Qantas, which have recently announced mid-air GSM calling using the Inmarsat infrastructure, are talking about prices around $2.50 to $5 a minute. But that involves interfacing with terrestrial mobile operators and so will entail roaming charges, whereas the Inmarsat/ACeS services are entirely their own. They will be targeted at maritime users who have no cheaper options available, as well as people with businesses in remote landlocked areas who cannot use conventional fixed or mobile telephony and so don’t mind paying a premium for voice communications.