Plugging the wireless communication gap with Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pierce

The idea of heterogenous communication networks deploying different architectures and technologies in one complementary mesh is still a revolutionary concept. But according to Rupert Pearce, the CEO of mobile satellite communications industry leader and pioneer Inmarsat, this is already the direction which the growing digital society is taking.

Seeing best-of-breed terrestrial mobile, WiFi, and satellite technologies working together will provide the consumer with better, more efficient services, coverage, and value—with each technology piece plugged into such an ecosystem playing to its respective strengths and sweet spots. From Inmarsat’s perspective, Pearce sees an embedded, secure and stable role for satellite in that ecosystem. “It isn’t going to be in the middle of a metropolitan area, as that would be the sweet spot for WiFi or terrestrial mobile,” he says, “but we’re going to see multiple areas where different networks are all offloading and onloading to and from each other in a complementary way.”

In order to grow global network capacity and cumulatively meet the challenge of a data-centric world where data is exploding, Pearce asserts the need to have an open architecture straight through to the information layer. “We have to work in a collaborative way, which means cooperation and teamwork [among different networks] so that we can interconnect in a very easy way for mutual benefit. This means new business models, new operating paradigms, and new ways of satisfying consumer needs. And sitting in all those networks, the information layer needs to move seamlessly from one technology platform to another so that the user experience is seamless,” says Pearce.

Heterogenous networks are the way of the future, according to Pearce, as not one network technology would solely be able to meet the demand of today’s rapidly growing digital society. “Global mobile data traffic in the last year grew 60 percent, and it is predicted to further grow 60 percent this year. We’ve got about five billion mobile devices connected today, and that’s going to grow to more than 20 billion by the end of the decade. This is nothing short of a profound revolution in terms of the way the world works, and we’ve got to bring every kind of technology into that equation so we can build heterogenous networks that aren’t just for the metropolitan elite, but can actually connect and enable the whole of society. I think we’re going to have to use these different components together to have a truly next generation network,” avers Pearce.

Global Architecture

Founded in 1979 as a British intergovernmental organization to serve the maritime industry, the now-privatized Inmarsat has seen quite the evolution in its business over the past decades.

While Inmarsat still upholds its strong heritage of offering its global maritime safety of life services for free—“All over the world today, tens of thousands of ships have an Inmarsat safety beacon onboard,” informs Pearce—revolutions in Information Technology and the Internet have likewise driven an unprecedented level of investment in other aspects of the business in the last 10 years.

“We’re seeing our safety services extend from maritime into other areas, most notably aviation. Next generation air traffic management services are going to be largely run over satellite because VHF networks have become too congested to support the growth of the airline industry,” says Pearce, adding that globally, the airplane fleet is forecasted to double in the next seven years. “There’ve never been more aircraft on order before. The European markets are growing at twice the pace of North America, but this is slow compared with Asia, particularly China which is going to quadruple in the next decade. There is very much a need to manage more aircraft in the sky, have them fly close together, make sure that missions are controlled and the routing of aircraft is improved, and satellite is going to play a role there,” he adds.

With satellite capabilities now cheaper, faster, more pervasive and open than ever, Inmarsat’s role in the global communications architecture will undoubtedly be massive. This is particularly true with the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), as three features of satellite technology have become more relevant than ever:

Coverage. “One thing that’s unusual about satellite is there’s one-to-many broadcast capability. If you put a satellite antenna on a million cars, for example, you can do a software upgrade really quick over the air via satellite. It’s very efficient because you are broadcasting to an entire community of assets, and that ubiquitous global broadcast capability is very unusual,” shares Pearce, adding that no other network on the planet has that real-time capability.

Reliability. “With IoT, you can’t have downtime or 3G levels of reliability. Reliability can be delivered by satellite, so whether it’s redundancy by satellite or you actually deploy satellite because you need high levels of reliability, satellite comes into the equation. In smart grid applications, for example, we’re being deployed in that space even when terrestrial mobile capabilities are there because our levels of reliability are much higher,” informs Pearce.

Satellite’s reliability, specifically in the area of disaster resilience, has never been more pronounced. “That’s an area where we’re used a lot, when terrestrial networks are down in times of emergency,” states Pearce, adding that when satellite communications would finally be able to access the same economies of scale enjoyed by terrestrial mobile, the benefits to society would be profound. “It will extend the digital society dramatically further—we’ll have greater reliability and resilience, and when times of emergency when terrestrial networks go down, we’ll have a fallback that would already be in place and available to deliver that backup experience,” he says.

Cyber resilience. In a world where our entire lives will be connected, smart and enabled, points of vulnerability are set to grow as well. “When machines talk to machines, when everything is connected, you’re more vulnerable to cyber attack and the world simply won’t function. Satellite services are inherently very cyber resilient because it’s a global virtual private network up there in space. It doesn’t have to connect to the cloud except in very secure ways. The transport layer isn’t over the internet, so you’ve got new levels of resilience there,” points out Pearce.

What’s Next for Inmarsat

With regulators, lawmakers and policy makers now more concerned than ever about creating an open, all-inclusive future digital society, new markets have been opening up for satellite communications. “There has never been a more exciting time to be in the satellite communications business—particularly if you’re a global player and can support mobility,” says Pearce.

With the pace of innovation growing exponentially, even the U.S. government—the largest government in the world by virtue of its own space-based communications capabilities—derives 95 percent of its satellite communications needs from the commercial sector. According to Pierce, two things have led to such phenomenon. “In an era of budget cuts and austerity, it has gotten too expensive for even very large governments like the U.S. to satisfy their own needs from proprietary programs,” he says. This is further compounded by the relentless pace of innovation, which renders some proprietary government technologies obsolete almost as soon as these are launched.

With commercial communications companies continually investing in upgrades and staying current—Inmarsat itself spends half a billion dollars a year on new technology, according to Pearce—governments are more keen to invest in the private sector. “Less than three months after we finished launching the Inmarsat 5 Series, we’ve ordered the Inmarsat 6 Series. So that pace of innovation is relentless and governments have realized it makes sense for them to invest in that because they get automatically upgraded and they get the newest thing from that commercial supplier,” states Pearce.

Inmarsat’s long-term investments, according to Pearce, cover the three core areas of space-based capabilities, the applications environment, and bringing costs down. “It’s all about enabling the customer to solve problems and create new opportunities. We’re not only investing at an unprecedented level in putting assets in space that have higher capacity and faster speeds, and continually working at bringing the cost of using our technologies down, but we want to be an enabler of applications, services and solutions. We’re spending a lot of money on our Inmarsat Gateway, which is a global platform, a testbed if you will, for applications services providers. We have incubation capabilities around the world to bring new innovation to markets we serve in a very agile, effective way,” says Pearce.

Indicative of Inmarsat’s tremendous growth is its increasing presence in Singapore, which will be its innovation and distribution hub for the Asian region. According to Pearce, being an aviation and maritime hub made Singapore a logical choice for expanding its global reach. “You have to look at the Singapore harbor to realize what an incredible place it is for the maritime industry. In aviation terms, Singapore Airlines remains one of our most important customers, and we’ve signed up a new strategic relationship with them for our next generation services. Communications infrastructure is fantastic here as well, as is Singapore’s welcoming economic environment and knowledge ecosystem. Schools, research, core sciences, investment in innovation and skills—it’s a very powerful ecosystem to be part of,” reveals Pearce.

Article originally posted in Enterprise Innovation by Rahul Joshi and Tricia Morente

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