Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Inmarsat's I-4 fleet

This is the first of Inmarsat's 4th generation satellite fleet, was launched in March 2005 and subsequently went into service over the Indian Ocean. This fleet includes two latest generation satellites, the Inmarsat-4s (I-4s), which were launched in 2005. Together, they provide coverage to around 85 per cent of the world's landmass and 98 per cent of the world's population. That dish antenna is 9 meters across, the array of solar panels extend 45 meters. The flap at far left is a "sail", able to "harness pressure exerted by particles from the Sun - the solar wind - to steer the I-4 and fine-tune its orbital position". This bird is already improving existing Inmarsat service in its planet print, and shows its stuff in terms of high speed data.

Inmarsat is also planning to launch a third I-4 satellite in 2008. This will deliver complete mobile broadband coverage of the planet, except for the extreme polar regions. Inmarsat's first wholly owned satellites, the Inmarsat-2s, were launched in the early 1990s, and the Inmarsat-3s - the first generation to use spot beam technology - followed later in the decade.

The total fleet now comprises 10 satellites. The I-4s set a new benchmark for mobile satellite communications in terms of their power, capacity and flexibility. One I-4 satellite is 60 times more powerful than an Inmarsat-3, and the I-4 fleet is expected to have a commercial life until around 2020.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Inmarsat IsatPhone

Before you get overly excited, note that so far you can only use this new satellite phone in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. But according to the Inmarsat announcement, the service will be worldwide by the end of 2008. Like Iridium, the IsatPhone does data at a piddly 2400 bps, but that’s enough for email and file up/downloading, especially with a little help from XGate. And especially when the phone’s expected retail is “about $500” with voice calls at less than $1/minute.

The data rate is 9600 when the phone is used in GSM mode; that’s Globalstar speed, but hopefully delivered more reliably by Inmarsat. There will also be a worldwide FleetPhone version of this service—with a down-below handset and external antenna—said to be “ideal” for smaller fishing vessels and yachts. “We are coming to shake up the satellite phone market,” says Inmarsat’s CEO. I think the reaction of a lot of offshore boaters will be: “Bring it on!”

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bin Laden & His Satellite Phone System

While Osama bin Laden, and other al Qaeda and Taliban leaders may be hiding out in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border, they are not cut off from the outside world. For a few thousand dollars, you can put together a a portable, solar powered, Internet connection. Weighing less than twenty pounds, it can be stuffed into a backpack and carried anywhere. Using solar panels, a satellite phone and a laptop, and you are connected. Satellite phone companies now provide higher data speeds. Not quite DSL, but you can move all the data a terrorist mastermind requires for communication and propaganda.

The terrorists know that Western intelligence agencies are all over the satellite phone systems. But by using code words, and encrypting the messages, much information can be exchanged without unacceptable risk. Moreover, the phones themselves can be used at a distance from the hideouts, lest the Americans are plotting the location of the phone, and have a missile armed Predator UAV nearby.
The intel people won't comment on this, especially any success they may have breaking the multiple layers of encryption, or doing an analysis of transmission locations. At the same time, such portable Internet set-ups are also useful for Western counter-terrorism forces operating in the back-country. U.S. Army Special Forces often have small teams doing stake outs in the outback, and Internet access is essential for getting and sending information.

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