40 years of flying high
Founded in the 1970s as a non-profit maritime safety organisation under the wing of the UN’s International Maritime Organisation, Inmarsat has long been a jewel of the UK economy. A global leader in satellite mobile communications, it keeps ships, planes and armies connected (with the US military being its largest single customer.)
Its headquarters loom over London’s Old Street Silicon roundabout, surveying the capital’s tech quarter. But its operations - a fleet of 13 satellites - are in the skies. They include four Global Xpress satellites, which provide a world-spanning high-speed broadband operation that delivers to terminals on land, sea and air.
For many decades Inmarsat held a global monopoly as the supplier of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) equipment. Used by ships in emergencies and requiring near-perfect uptime and connectivity, it is compulsory for owners of large ships to have GMDSS systems on board. That means that Inmarsat’s terminals are on board every large commercial ship that sails the world’s oceans. Its monopoly, however, has been broken; the company now faces challenges from US rival Iridium and Chinese company BeiDou.
While this maritime business remains the biggest earner for Inmarsat, it is aviation that will become more important in the future.
Combining its high-capacity satellites with Deutsche Telekom’s ground towers, Inmarsat is behind the European Aviation Network. This delivers in-flight wifi connectivity as reliably and securely as on-the-ground broadband service. For some of us, it represents a terrible intrusion of communications into what had been a peaceful haven, but millions of European air passengers will be thanking Inmarsat.
Inmarsat was privatised in the 1990s, bought by private equity in 2003 and floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2005. In 2019, the FTSE250 company was once again bought by a private equity consortium led by Apax and Warburg Pincus.
The bid was accompanied with a three-year commitment to support Inmarsat’s role in the space sector and “procure a majority of strategic decisions in the UK," a promise not to “substantially” cut Inmarsat’s engineering workforce and not to move that particular facility from Britain. Guarantees to continue to invest in new satellites have been given. While one satellite industry veteran was quoted in the FT as saying that these legally binding commitments tie Inmarsat’s future to Britain, others have described the commitments as wishy-washy.
Here are the company's highlights of 2019.