Ground network expansion powers next-generation connectivity

14 May 2020: Since Inmarsat is known as a satellite operator, it’s hardly surprising that most people’s gaze tends to be fixed on what we do in space.

But our fleets of 14 satellites flying in geosynchronous orbit 35,786km (22,236 miles) above the planet tell only half the story. In order for us to deliver our award-winning operational, safety and mission-critical connectivity services to organisations, governments and individuals around the world we also need a significant technical presence here on Earth.

Our ground network is made up of satellite access stations (SAS) strategically located around the world. Large antennas, each nine metres-plus in diameter, act as traffic gateways, receiving and transmitting radio signals from and to our satellites. Whenever a customer uses their satellite phone or terminal to connect to a satellite, the signal is beamed to the SAS to be processed and delivered via our global core network to wherever it needs to go – whether that is the internet, a public cloud, an enterprise network or another Inmarsat terminal – and responses are transmitted back to the satellite and then to the customer.

Meeting demand

This all happens in just under a second. So for the airline passenger at 30,000ft, the seafarer in the middle of the ocean or the aid worker at the scene of a natural disaster, connecting via Inmarsat is little different from using their smartphone or laptop at home or in the office.

A year ago, we announced plans for our Global Xpress network that will result in even greater capabilities, capacity and agility. To meet the forecasted growth in demand for global mobile connectivity we are transforming the way we design, deliver and operate all our infrastructure. An explosion in innovation is now coming to fruition in our ground network, with a massive development programme taking place this year and next.

“This year Inmarsat will deploy and bring into service more ground stations than we’ve ever done in a single year,” says Inmarsat Chief Technology Officer Peter Hadinger.

Capacity doubled

Craig Hibberd, Senior Director, Ka-band Systems Engineering has the details: “At the end of 2019 we supported four I-4 satellites, four GX satellites and our European Aviation Network (EAN) satellite from 17 large antennas at 11 SAS locations around the world.

“In 2020, the introduction of our powerful fifth Global Xpress satellite, GX5, adds six new antennas and three new locations to our global footprint. In 2021 we will add another six large antennas to existing and new sites to support two new Inmarsat-6 satellites. Another half dozen sites are currently in operation or in development with national partners in Russia, India and China to meet our regulatory obligations there.”

A new 9-metre Ka-band antenna was installed at our ground station in Burum in readiness for GX5 commercial service introduction

GX5 alone will see Inmarsat’s global satellite capacity more than double. The I-6 generation, the first to feature Ka-band payloads hosted on L-band satellites, will add another 50% to our capacity in regions with the highest demand.

Technology investment

A key element of the investment in our ground network has been the development of a huge high-speed, global software-defined network (SDN) and the use of Networks Function Virtualisation (NFV).

SDN manages all parts of the network – our ground stations, data centres and meet-me points – via software and directs them to work together in sync, like a conductor leading an orchestra (in fact, the process is called orchestration). By automating and synchronising many repetitive workflow tasks, operators are freed up to focus on more of the value adds our vast ground network can deliver, and developing new capabilities to offer to customers.

To understand NFV, think of how we used to have separate devices to make phone calls, listen to music, check the weather and browse the web – now they are all applications that run together on a smartphone. Similarly, many of the routing, management and security functions of our ground network can now be software-driven and hosted within the cloud, rather than on expensive purpose-built physical appliances. The result is we can boost the power and speed of the computer servers as technology improves and upgrade the applications independent of each other while saving cost.

Future needs

Victor Chao, Director of IP Networks, explains: “These two technologies go hand in hand and allow Inmarsat to scale and accommodate both existing and future needs of our higher capacity satellite systems and network services.

“NFV allows us to virtualise much of our infrastructure and centralise network services at our regional data centres so we can reduce our physical footprint, making deployments greener, and deliver services which can scale elastically to our real-time demands.  Drawing parallels with the widespread automation of the car and farming industries, SDN extends this same automation and agility to the operations of our increasingly dynamic and complex mobile network, further adding to the differentiation of Inmarsat’s service offerings.”

For our customers and partners, the benefits include much quicker provisioning of new GX or BGAN services, and for the team in our Network Operations Centre (NOC) working 24/7/365 to ensure we stay online, the more detailed view of our entire ground network reduces downtime and shortens repair cycles.

Super agile

Peter Hadinger concludes: “We are working to ensure that our future network is super agile so that we can stay ahead of market trends and super cost-competitive so that we can beat any challenger. Our current investments will continue to dramatically increase the capacity, capability and agility of Global Xpress, while sharing a common core network across all our Ka-band, L-band and S-band services will allow faster provisioning and easier troubleshooting.

“Inmarsat’s ground network will remain our customers’ number one choice for meeting their toughest connectivity challenges both now and in the future.”