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Iridium makes the final $3 billion connection

Posted 5 June 2019 · Add Comment

A near decade-long campaign to completely upgrade Iridium’s low-Earth orbiting satellite constellation has finally been completed. Steve Nichols highlights the changes it will bring.

Iridium, which styles itself as ‘the world’s only truly global mobile satellite communications company’ has completed the ‘refresh’ of its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation.
It means its new Certus satellite-based in-flight connectivity system can now go live.
Certus will offer business jets and helicopters faster and cheaper access to the internet while in flight.
While throughput speeds are nothing like that achievable with geostationary satellite-based systems, the upside is that the equipment is likely to be smaller, lighter and cheaper.
Iridium Communications announced the completion of its $3 billion satellite constellation upgrade campaign, known as Iridium NEXT, during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC in February.
It says that with a fully operational constellation, featuring 66 new Iridium satellites and no further launches planned, it has concluded its nearly decade-long capital-intensive programme to create an upgraded network both in space and on the ground.
First announced in 2010, the Iridium NEXT campaign featured eight launches with SpaceX. In total, 81 satellites were built by prime contractor, Thales Alenia Space, of which 75 were launched with nine serving as in-orbit spares.
Thales Alenia Space was responsible for design and integration of the new satellites, including launch and early operations testing in partnership with Iridium’s team at the company’s satellite network operations centre in Virginia, US.
Iridium’s cross-linked satellites create a web of coverage around the entire planet. Unlike geostationary satellite systems, which normally do not work above a latitude of around plus or minus 80 degrees, Iridium says its cross-linked architecture enables real-time transit of data to and from any location on the globe, including over the oceans and polar regions.
Aviation terminals are being built by Thales, Collins Aerospace, L3, Gogo and Satcom Direct. Actual throughput speeds are not yet known, but are likely to be in the sub one-Megabit range. This will be boosted by the fact that the antenna for aviation use is likely to be tiny, about the same size as an ice hockey puck.
The company says terminals will be upgradable to the next speed class – Iridium Certus 700 (352/704 kbps) – with a firmware update once available.
Michael Hooper, Iridium’s director and GM of aviation, said: “Iridium Certus takes us to a new level in terms of high-quality voice and streaming IP data.
“Being broadband based, we see a lot of applications in the cockpit, including safety services, electronic flight bag updates, weather, plus the transfer of data off the aircraft.
“With Certus, we are going to be able to do all those things – but that much better. Our legacy services were narrow band, but the new IP stream capability means our partners can really use our service.
“The small form factor, lower hardware cost and smaller antennas for Iridium Certus give us a lot of opportunities,” Hooper concluded.
But what about comparisons with its closest competitor, Inmarsat SwiftBroadband?
“We have a number of aviation service providers signed up, but we think we have a compelling product and a competitive price point,” Hooper said. “And the firmware upgrade path to faster speeds is also attractive – in-flight connectivity upgrades are normally expensive, but the ability to be able to double the speed to 700kbps with a simple firmware upgrade and no change to the antenna or terminal will be attractive.”
Thales has already developed an Iridium Certus solution for helicopters, which was on display at the Helitech 2018 exhibition in Amsterdam.
It said FlytLINK can provide reliable satellite communications for cockpit and crew operations and is said to be future-proofed for next-generation higher speed services.
Another benefit of using LEO satellites is the lower latency, or time delay, compared with geostationary satellites, thanks to their lower orbital altitude.
Thales added that, in terms of safety services, FlytLINK would support streaming flight data, future air navigation system (FANS) 1/A, controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC), automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C), push-to-talk (PTT) voice, cockpit four-wire voice and aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) with a short-burst data (SBD) modem. The 3.2kg line-replaceable unit (LRU) also includes an embedded 802.11n secured Wi-Fi access point.
Iridium estimates the L-band specialty broadband market size to be approximately $700 million today. Prior to the launch of Iridium Certus, the company had an approximately $25 million market share value in high-speed maritime services. It looks forward to that growing with this faster and more competitive service.
It had previously said it believes revenues attributed to Iridium Certus will reach an approximately $100 million yearly run rate by year end 2021.

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