Jat Brainch, Inmarsat’s new chief commercial and product officer (CCPO) is confident she can blaze a trail for Inmarsat over the next few years. The operator is in the midst of a reinvention under the leadership of new CEO Rajeev Suri and recently announced plans for the buildout of a small Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation.
Brainch will be responsible for Inmarsat’s commercial approach and bringing a range of new products and services to market. In this interview ahead of SATELLITE 2021, Brainch spoke about her new role at Inmarsat, the recent ORCHESTRA and ELERA announcements, and what the future holds for Inmarsat.
Brainch: This is a really exciting role during an amazingly exciting and dynamic time at Inmarsat. We are building unprecedented momentum in the company, which our recent announcements of ORCHESTRA and ELERA exemplify. These initiatives are in addition to our previously announced, fully-funded technology roadmap which will see a major extension of Global Xpress, including our first ever HEO [High-Earth Orbit] satellites to provide dedicated coverage over the Arctic region.
At any time, the role of chief commercial and product officer is a significant responsibility. I think it is doubly so in such a dynamic company and industry environment but it is a challenge I relish. It’s the opportunity to make a real difference.
If you look at what’s happening in the industry today, it sometimes feels like the customer is being forgotten. As a company, we are not saying here is a new technology, let’s go and find customers who could use it. Our approach is the opposite. We start from our understanding of the customer and design everything we do from that perspective. To be successful – to be there for the long-term – you have to start with the customer and then it comes to product and service innovation, my mantra is simple; who are our customers and what do they need?
We have always had a strong understanding of whom we are serving: commercial mobility, government, and IoT [Internet of Things] customers. This is intimately reflected in how we design our satellites, our ground stations and our solutions and services. We’re not trying to be all things to all people and we know that the technology needed for a ship or a plane is quite different from that needed for mass-market consumer broadband, for example.
Brainch: In one word: focus. We design, build, and operate our networks with a very clear focus on what we need to do to best serve commercial mobility and government customers. All our investments — in technology, infrastructure, products, and services, as well as our internal organizational initiatives — start with those we serve.
It’s this attitude that ultimately will ensure we are competitive and continue to deliver the best services for our customers. It’s this approach that led to the creation of ORCHESTRA and ELERA and the major investments we are making to deliver them. Because of this focus, we are in a state of permanent evolution both as an organization and in terms of the technologies that underpin our services. Our customers’ needs are always changing and you just have to look at the wave of new entrants investing in satellite communications to appreciate that our industry is transforming itself faster than ever before.
I don’t believe that any company is entitled to a “fair share.” We have to prove ourselves every day – not just in terms of the services we offer right now but also in our commitment to continuously enhancing the capabilities we offer.
The second part of your question – will it become more challenging – undoubtedly. That is why we are not waiting to see what happens. We have a vision of how mobility and government customers’ needs will evolve over the coming decades and, as you have seen so recently, we are investing to be there ahead of demand. As we did when we created BGAN and when we created Global Xpress, we are doing the same with ELERA and ORCHESTRA.
With all of that said, we take competition seriously – whether it’s existing competitors or new entrants. We actively monitor and assess the technologies they’re deploying and the services they’re offering. And, if it will benefit our customers, then we will look to incorporate it within our infrastructure.
That’s the amazing thing that some people don’t understand about us. We have never been dogmatically wedded to a particular technology or a particular orbit. Over the coming years, our customers will see HEO and LEO orbit satellites from Inmarsat, and our own terrestrial 5G network designed to address customer hot spots, such as major ports and airport hubs.
Brainch: Every business must make their own assessment on the connectivity features that are important for their customers. But I would argue that with our announcement of ORCHESTRA, we are offering more to aviation customers than any other company by an even wider margin.
GEO [Geostationary Orbit] networks are and will remain optimal for globally available IFC [In-Flight Connectivity] services. That’s why we are building ORCHESTRA to overlay additional LEO and terrestrial capabilities on top of our GEO satellites. GEO gives our customers the assurance of coverage wherever they fly, while the terrestrial and LEO components will add capacity into hot spots such that congestion will be addressed forever. And it’s important to remember that ORCHESTRA comes on top of our existing investment in seven new GX satellites, which will be launched over the coming few years.
If we look at this from the customers’ perspective, we know that a major priority for airlines is a seamless, highly reliable, high-quality broadband experience for their passengers. In an exceptionally competitive industry, the quality of in-flight Wi-Fi is a vital differentiator for airline brands and it needs to match their overall passenger experience. I would argue that airlines cannot afford to commit to networks that have been designed for an entirely different set of customers and for whom aviation and IFC is an add-on designed to supplement their revenues. For us, mobility customers and airlines are our only focus.
Equipping an aircraft with IFC is an investment that airlines expect to continue delivering over many years. And, I would argue, that alongside many other factors, airlines are looking for assurance that their chosen partner will be there for the long haul. Looking at the generation of satellites the new LEO players are now deploying, the future of LEO satellites in supporting aviation is still very much a TBD. It’s certainly not there in the current generation.
Brainch: Horizontal integration is something of a challenge in our industry but, as you indicate, there may be more vertical integration given that a few “free electrons” still exist and this trend has certainly been accelerated by the pressures created by COVID. We’ve publicly stated that we rule nothing out and as you can see with ORCHESTRA, we are setting out a vision for IFC for years to come.
Brainch: We don’t believe it impacts the long-term trajectory. It has and will continue to impact the timing of this growth. Current forecasts suggest that aviation could return to 2019 levels in 2023, so this effectively shifts growth plans for all operators to the right. However, in parallel, the importance of being connected while mobile, including in-flight, has risen and airlines are re-planning fleets driving a surge of plans to equip aircraft. Backing this up, we’ve already seen a significant increase in passengers’ use of in-flight Wi-Fi when people are able to fly.
Brainch: IFC remains a huge opportunity. The only thing that has changed, due to COVID, is the timing of that opportunity. With our continuing investment in GX services, with seven new satellites going up over the next few years, in ORCHESTRA and ELERA and the completion of a major enhancement of our ground network, we believe we remain in pole position to win new airline customers.
Brainch: The right team does evolve over time, and I am very excited to be part of the leadership of Inmarsat at this exciting time. Keep in mind that the majority of the leadership team at Inmarsat remains the same. While we continue to remain focused on commercial mobility and government customers, there is great diversity in that customer base, which is an important facet in the strength of our business.
Right now, I’m focused on ensuring that we continue to have a highly successful portfolio of products that outclass what the competition can offer. The innovations we are investing in are fully funded and with the support of our highly experienced and financially strong shareholders, alongside an amazing community of partners, we will continue to invest in growth opportunities.
Brainch: This industry evolves so quickly that isolating inflection points in time can sometimes be difficult. Customer needs are evolving rapidly, especially post pandemic. The technology and its capabilities tend to take strides forward, materially changing the art of the possible in ever faster cycles. The use cases for that technology also moves at a rapid pace, and the markets in which satcom is a relevant player changes accordingly.
Brainch: I think Inmarsat has made its position in the market very clear over recent weeks. We are here to serve our customers and we remain committed to our focused sectors and near adjacencies. The new LEO players are certainly generating a lot of attention, but Inmarsat is receiving a lot of attention too, particularly following our recent strategic announcements, which reset the narrative for how mobility and government customers are best served. There is a place for new networks in the sense of increasing connectivity globally and helping with the vast task of connecting those billions of consumers across the world that remain unconnected.
However, it’s important to consider what the standalone LEO networks are primarily designed for and what they’re not. The idea that a communications satellite is just a communications satellite and that any satellite is suitable for any customer is a fallacy. It’s like comparing an aircraft and car. Yes, they’re both forms of transport but you wouldn’t buy a car if your plan was to cross an ocean. So, while we take the new entrants very seriously, we are confident that with Global Xpress, ELERA, EAN, and ORCHESTRA, we will remain the best in the world for mobility and government customers for decades to come. VS