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Can Iridium break Inmarsat’s hold on GMDSS?

Can Iridium break Inmarsat’s hold on GMDSS?
This week yielded good news for the US satcoms provider Iridium, which has recently been in a bid to launch its own version of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Currently Inmarsat is the sole provder of GMDSS.

Iridium’s proposal has gained recognition from the IMO Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR). The system will now be subject to final approval from the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), which is expected by mid-2016.

One would think that the almost-frighteningly antiquated GMDSS system and its juddering Navtex printers would be something of an irrelevance in the age of High-Throughput-Satellites (HTS) and Ka-Band VSATs, but shipowners are still required to fit these machines to ensure compliance with IMO regulations.

Inmarsat meanwhile has been critical of Iridium’s bid to an extent not normally seen in our PR-dominated age. During its Q1 results conference call in May, Inmarsat ceo Rupert Pearce was blunt in his assessment of the Iridium bid, claiming that its network falls short of the 99.99% reliability levels required by IMO’s Resolution 1001.

“I would say simply that while we obviously welcome competition and innovation around GMDSS and safety services generally, the most important thing is that the standards of quality for safety services are maintained, if not enhanced, frankly and fundamental to that is 99.99% availability on your network. And we do not believe that Iridium even comes close to that level of performance.

“And it is, as such, utterly inappropriate that they should even apply, let alone be granted accreditation in that situation because lives will be lost if people install that equipment and it's not available when they need it. And in the context of the safety service as opposed to commercial service, the consequences as ghastly to think about.

“…we will be asking the regulators to wait until much further down the road, when alternative networks may be up and may deliver that kind of availability before they think about foisting that kind of service on a mariner out there in the oceans with -- needing help.”

Iridium has not been without its problems and has lost 10 satellites from its network of Low-Earth orbit craft since 2001 – nine of which were technical failures while in orbit (one was due to an unfortunate collision with a junked Russian satellite). Inmarsat calculates that Iridium’s total reliability is 96.5% - 3.4% short of IMO compliance.

Iridium is clearly happy with the outcome of the NCSR meeting though and ceo Matt Desch said this week: "This is a victory for Iridium and the maritime industry. The overwhelming support for our application to provide the industry an alternative and equally capable option for GMDSS services is a testament to the value and benefit the Iridium network can provide to maritime safety."

The Virginia-based firm does though have a number of hurdles to overcome. Chief among these is the 2017 launch of Iridium’s NEXT network, which will see 72 next-generation satellites replace the current constellation of 66 now approaching the end of their service lives.

But if the new satellite deployments go off without a hitch, Iridium’s network will be capable of covering the polar regions, which Inmarsat’s current network of satellites in equatorial geostationary orbit are unable to provide, a point which Iridium highlighted in their statement this week. There is no doubt that this factored into the IMO NCSR’s decision, and will eventually be considered by the Maritime Safety Committee in 2016.

As offshore activity increases in the Northernmost reaches, and the possibilities for Arctic shipping routes grow with the melting ice, some sort of GMDSS coverage will have to be provided – Resolution 1001 compliant or not. Indeed this week has seen orders being confirmed for ice-class LNG carriers for the Yamal LNG project, which will transit the Northern Sea Route in the summer months. To seafarers working in such inhospitable waters, 96.5% reliability will be a lot better than nothing.