Inmarsat launches I-4 satellite:
expanded coverage by June
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On March 11, the world’s largest communications
satellite was launched into a stationary orbit 22,000 miles
above the Indian Ocean. Known as the “I-4,” the
6-ton satellite is owned by Inmarsat, Ltd., and is expected
to be operational by 4th quarter, 2005. Its launch signals
the convergence of four trends that are making remote voice
and email communications more affordable than ever in Asia,
Africa, and other regions.
Three of these trends have been increasingly evident over
the last five years: the popularity of small, portable “satphones” and
satellite data modems; the growing use of these devices
for email; and expanding territorial coverage.
To these may now be added a fourth: steady and significant
reductions in the price of service and hardware, creating
new opportunities for communities, humanitarian development
projects, and field teams in remote areas.
The new I-4 satellite will expand the coverage area of
the RBGAN1, a lightweight (3.3 lb) data modem that has
performed with distinction since its introduction in 2003,
covering the Middle East, Western and Central Africa, and
Central Asia. The I-4 satellite will extend this coverage
to Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and most
Pennies per message. What does it cost to send and receive
email over RBGAN? Fortunately, the trend toward lower prices
is on a path toward the proverbial “penny email.” A
small text message of 4 kilobytes will cost about 3 cents3.
A larger email of 20 kilobytes would cost around 15 cents;
a 100-kilobyte attachment, about 70 cents.
Usage prices have dropped by over 50% since the RBGAN’s
introduction less than two years ago, and rates continue
to decline. The cost of a new modem, once $2000+, is now
More bandwidth, more choice. When the first two I-4 satellites
complete testing and are commissioned, the service will
drop the “R” and become simply BGAN. Current
R-BGAN modems are compatible with the new service. However,
the I-4 will enable Inmarsat to offer a much greater bandwidth:
a maximum of 432 kbps, triple the current capability.
Even though the RBGAN will work over the new Inmarsat
I-4 satellite, its speed will not increase above its original
144 kbps. To take advantage of the near-broadband speed
of 432 kbps, users will have to purchase a new BGAN terminal.
Currently, four manufacturers are planning to offer BGAN
terminals, which vary in size, weight, pricing and features.
Not all of the terminals being produced will be capable
of 432 kbps, but there will be more options for specific
RBGAN and the next-generation BGAN have other features
and options, including external antenna kits which will
allow the user to work from an indoor office. The most
important precaution for first-time users, however, is
to research the different service providers carefully.
While there are many airtime pricing packages available,
the primary cost control factor is the management of unwanted
data transfer over the satellite. The best services understand
this and have provisions for limiting and monitoring excess
Value bandwidth – within reach. High bandwidth at
affordable prices has been a long-sought prize in the aid
and development community for many years, and it is now
within reach. As the four trends continue in favorable
directions, full Web access – not limited to email
- from remote locations will also become a more affordable
possibility, perhaps in two or three years. Well-designed “lean” Web
sites will help as well.
Customers of communications services will continue to
have many choices, if they are informed of the opportunities
available. Web technologies, enabled by portable satellite
field communications, now make it easier than ever to keep
humanitarian teams and managers informed – wherever
they work. They, and the people they help, all will benefit.
- Regional Broadband Global Area
- A second satellite is planned to be launched in 3rd
quarter 2005 and will cover the Western Hemisphere. A
third has been built as a spare but may possibly
be used to cover the South Pacific.
- Excludes any activation and/or monthly fees that may
apply to the R-BGAN service. These fees vary per
airtime service supplier.