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Starlink vs Inmarsat: A Comprehensive Comparison of Satellite Internet Pioneers

The satellite internet industry is undergoing a period of unprecedented innovation and disruption, as a new generation of companies led by SpaceX‘s Starlink seek to upend the traditional model of connectivity. With its audacious plan to blanket the Earth in thousands of small, low-flying satellites, Starlink has captured the imaginations of consumers and investors alike with the promise of delivering affordable, high-speed internet access to even the most remote corners of the globe.

But Starlink is hardly alone in its quest to connect the unconnected. Established players like Inmarsat, with decades of experience providing mobile satellite communications to enterprises and governments, are also adapting to the changing landscape with new technologies and business models. As these two titans of the industry jockey for position in an increasingly crowded market, it‘s worth taking a closer look at how they compare across a range of key metrics.

Tale of the Tape: Starlink vs Inmarsat

Metric Starlink Inmarsat
Founded 2015 1979
Headquarters Redmond, WA London, UK
Employees 3,000+ 1,800+
Satellites in orbit 3,500+ 14
Satellite altitude 550 km 35,800 km
Satellite lifespan ~5 years 15+ years
Satellite throughput 20 Gbps 8-16 Gbps
User terminal Phased array antenna Parabolic dish
Download speed 50-200 Mbps Up to 50 Mbps
Latency 20-40 ms 550-650 ms
Coverage Selected regions Global
Primary markets Consumer broadband Maritime, aviation, government

Satellite Specs and Technology

The most fundamental difference between Starlink and Inmarsat lies in their approach to satellite technology. Starlink‘s constellation consists of thousands of small, relatively inexpensive satellites orbiting at an altitude of around 550 kilometers. Each Starlink satellite weighs roughly 260 kilograms and is equipped with multiple high-throughput antennas capable of transmitting up to 20 gigabits per second (Gbps) of data.

By contrast, Inmarsat operates a fleet of just 14 much larger and more powerful geostationary (GEO) satellites orbiting at an altitude of 35,800 kilometers. These satellites can weigh upwards of 6,000 kilograms each and are designed to last 15 years or more in orbit. Inmarsat‘s newest Global Xpress (GX) satellites offer throughput of around 8-16 Gbps per satellite.

The lower altitude of Starlink‘s satellites offers a key advantage in terms of latency, or the time it takes for data to travel from the user‘s device to the internet and back. Starlink boasts latency of 20-40 milliseconds, comparable to terrestrial broadband, while Inmarsat‘s GEO satellites have a inherent latency of 550-650 milliseconds due to the vast distances involved.

However, Starlink‘s LEO architecture also comes with significant tradeoffs. Because each satellite covers a relatively small area, Starlink requires a massive constellation to provide continuous coverage. SpaceX has already launched over 3,500 Starlink satellites and has regulatory approval to operate nearly 12,000, with plans to potentially expand to over 40,000 in the future.

The sheer scale of Starlink‘s constellation has raised concerns about the impact on astronomical observations and the risk of collisions in an increasingly crowded low Earth orbit. There are also questions about the ability to safely deorbit and replace the short-lived Starlink satellites, which have an estimated lifespan of just five years.

Ground Equipment and Installation

Another key difference between Starlink and Inmarsat is in the user equipment required to access the network. Starlink customers receive a "Dishy McFlatface" terminal, a flat phased array antenna that automatically aligns itself with the satellite constellation. The terminal is relatively easy for customers to self-install, although a clear view of the sky is necessary for optimal performance.

Inmarsat‘s BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) service uses portable, laptop-sized terminals with a fold-out parabolic dish antenna. These terminals are typically installed and configured by trained technicians, although some newer models are designed for easier setup by end-users. For its maritime and aviation customers, Inmarsat offers a range of specialized antennas and equipment tailored to the unique requirements of those industries.

Financial Comparison

As a privately-held division of SpaceX, Starlink‘s financial details are not publicly disclosed. However, recent filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) shed some light on the company‘s financial performance and projections. In a 2021 filing, SpaceX revealed that Starlink had over 145,000 active users in 25 countries and was generating $43 million in monthly revenue. The company projected that Starlink could reach profitability with just 1 million subscribers, although some outside analysts have questioned the assumptions behind that forecast.

Inmarsat, as a publicly-traded company prior to its acquisition by Viasat, reported revenues of $1.27 billion in 2021, down slightly from $1.33 billion in 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its aviation and maritime businesses. The company‘s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) for 2021 was $735 million, representing an EBITDA margin of 58%.

Inmarsat‘s financial stability and mature business model stand in contrast to the high-risk, high-reward nature of Starlink‘s venture. While SpaceX has deep pockets thanks to its successful launch business and support from investors, the capital-intensive nature of building and maintaining a massive satellite constellation means that Starlink will likely require significant additional funding to reach its full potential.

Target Markets and Applications

Perhaps the most significant difference between Starlink and Inmarsat is in their target markets and use cases. Starlink is primarily focused on providing high-speed, low-latency broadband internet access to consumers and small businesses in underserved areas. The company has initially rolled out service in North America, Europe, and Australia, with plans to expand globally as its constellation grows.

In addition to its core residential service, Starlink has also begun exploring new applications such as in-flight connectivity for commercial airlines and internet service for mobile platforms like ships, trucks, and RVs. The company has already signed deals with Hawaiian Airlines and JSX to provide in-flight Wi-Fi, and has launched a "Starlink for RVs" service that allows users to access the network from multiple locations.

Inmarsat, by contrast, has traditionally focused on providing mobile satellite communications to enterprise and government customers in industries such as maritime, aviation, and defense. The company‘s BGAN service is widely used by journalists, aid workers, and other professionals who need reliable connectivity in remote or disaster-stricken areas.

In the maritime sector, Inmarsat‘s Fleet Xpress service combines the high-speed broadband of its Global Xpress network with the reliability of its L-band satellites to provide ships with always-on connectivity for operational and crew welfare purposes. The company counts many of the world‘s leading shipping companies and cruise lines among its customers.

For aviation, Inmarsat offers a range of in-flight connectivity solutions for commercial airlines, business jets, and government aircraft. The company‘s GX Aviation service provides passengers with high-speed Wi-Fi, while its SwiftBroadband-Safety platform enables secure communications for cockpit and aircraft operations.

Competitive Landscape

While Starlink and Inmarsat are two of the most prominent players in the satellite communications industry, they are far from the only ones seeking to connect the world from above. Other notable competitors include:

  • OneWeb: Backed by the UK government and a consortium of investors including Bharti Global and Eutelsat, OneWeb is building a constellation of 648 LEO satellites to provide global broadband coverage. The company recently emerged from bankruptcy protection and has launched over 200 satellites to date.

  • Kuiper Systems: A subsidiary of Amazon, Kuiper Systems plans to deploy a constellation of 3,236 LEO satellites to provide high-speed internet access. The company has yet to launch any satellites but has received regulatory approval from the FCC.

  • Telesat Lightspeed: Canadian satellite operator Telesat is developing a constellation of 298 LEO satellites aimed at serving enterprise and government customers. The company plans to begin launching satellites in 2023.

  • Eutelsat: French satellite operator Eutelsat operates a fleet of 36 GEO satellites providing broadband, video, and data services to customers in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The company is an investor in OneWeb and plans to integrate its services with OneWeb‘s LEO constellation.

With so many players entering the market, the coming years are likely to see intense competition and consolidation as companies race to establish a foothold in the rapidly evolving satellite communications landscape.

Challenges and Uncertainties

Despite the tremendous potential of satellite internet to bridge the digital divide and enable new applications, the industry faces a number of significant challenges and uncertainties. One of the biggest is the regulatory environment, as companies must navigate a complex web of national and international regulations governing the use of orbital slots and radio frequencies.

In the case of Starlink, concerns have been raised about the impact of its massive constellation on astronomical observations and the risk of collisions with other satellites or debris. The company has taken steps to mitigate these issues, such as painting its satellites black to reduce reflectivity and implementing automated collision avoidance systems, but the sheer scale of its planned constellation means that the risks cannot be eliminated entirely.

Another challenge is the high cost and technical complexity of building and maintaining a satellite network. Launching thousands of satellites into orbit is an incredibly capital-intensive undertaking, and the satellites themselves have a limited lifespan before they need to be replaced. This means that companies must have a clear path to profitability and be able to sustain a high rate of investment over many years.

There are also questions about the ability of satellite internet to compete with terrestrial alternatives like 5G and fiber in terms of speed, latency, and reliability. While LEO constellations like Starlink promise to close the gap, they still face limitations in terms of capacity and coverage compared to ground-based networks.

Conclusion

The race to connect the world via satellite internet is heating up, with Starlink and Inmarsat leading the charge in their respective markets. While Starlink‘s ambitious LEO constellation promises to disrupt the consumer broadband industry with its high speeds and low latency, Inmarsat‘s decades of experience serving enterprise and government customers give it a strong foundation to build on.

Ultimately, the success of these companies and their competitors will depend on their ability to navigate the technical, regulatory, and financial challenges of building and operating a global satellite network. As the demand for connectivity continues to grow, particularly in underserved and developing regions, the potential market opportunity is vast.

However, it remains to be seen whether satellite internet can truly live up to its promise of connecting the unconnected and enabling a new era of global connectivity. With so many players entering the market and the technology still evolving rapidly, the only certainty is that the coming years will bring plenty of innovation, disruption, and competition to the world of satellite communications.