Todd McDonell, Inmarsat’s head of worldwide government, spoke with SpaceNews about what Orchestra represents for government clients, who account for roughly a third of the company’s revenue.
What changes are you making to Orchestra to meet the needs of future government mobility?
Mobility means two things to governments in particular: It’s either to utilize on the go or to take with you everywhere you go. The second is critical since they frequently need to show up somewhere and establish a relationship simply.
It isn’t easy to handle a very high-density area of people with satellite comms today, as a busy airport, and you still require to maintain connectivity after they all disperse. Because LEOs are such small platforms, it’s difficult to provide a high density in a single location.
Orchestra is built to deal with this. It has a terrestrial portion centered on 5G technology, an LEO component that allows for lower latency links, and GEOs on top for assistance. The goal is to ensure that we can provide the appropriate level of functionality and capacity for mobility clients, which necessitates the use of those three legs.
What is it about the government market that necessitates this multi-orbit strategy?
In today’s government, all is a node. You used to have an asset, such as a ship, plane, or vehicle, and you would say, “That’s my connectivity node.” I’m fine as long as everything gets to that.” Each person, as well as the vehicle, is now a node. They must all be capable of communicating with one another, the vehicle, and beyond. That began as a military issue, but we now see it in emergency services, public safety, border protection, and other areas.
In the military, small rectangular screens are worn on a person’s forearm so that they can get real-time updates and share them with others. They can also obtain additional information from the vehicle or a direct feed from the UAV. All of these items must now be connected, which is why we should be able to transmit more bandwidth to something which is much compact and easy to carry for a person.
And the scale multiplies. When you consider the large GEOs we’re currently creating, you’ll see that they have a lot of capacity since we require to be able to utilize large quantities of capacity to the fleet of ships. We’re also being requested to change the focus around that technology. All of the Ka-band satellites in the most recent generation use electronically guided arrays. The days of just laying down a beam and saying, “These are my beams, this is how much power is in a beam, this is how many channels you may have” are gone.
We’re now switching on the beams in front of an airplane at the aircraft’s speed and shutting them off behind it. One of the benefits of this is that we’re just utilizing the bandwidth required to support that item, which means the rest of the band may be used to serve other assets.
A contract to use Inmarsat satellites by the Australian Defence Force was recently renewed until 2027. Is that agreement flexible enough to accommodate Orchestra’s arrival?
Absolutely. They have a particular agreement with us. They have accessibility to all of our services, and it explicitly states that they can add new ones. They also have a customized software platform that allows them to manage their utilization of our services. This provides them control over the use of operations on the satellite that they don’t own, which is a novel concept.
Are you considering bringing that model to other nations?
Yes, there are discussions with various governments on the subject. If a government decides to fly its GEO satellites, it will do so over 15 to 25 years.