40 years of flying high
Global presence | De facto standard communications technology for world's ships
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. This year, it has been at the end of unwelcome takeover talk from US satellite company EchoStar (as well as interest from French rival Eutelsat). While these suitors have been rebuffed, the company may yet receive other offers. In which case, the big political question would be whether the UK Government were to deem it a strategic national asset. More than 90 per cent of Inmarsat’s revenue comes from outside the UK but the British army is an important customer.
Powering global connectivity for nearly four decades
Its tracking record speaks for itself - but is it seen as a strategic national asset?