By Todd McDonell – President, Global Government, Inmarsat
With Covid-19 spurring digital transformation across businesses, we are seeing governments ramp up their efforts to build national digital capabilities so that they are well-positioned to help ensure continuity of government and services to keep the economy moving forward.
Most recently, the Australian government agreed to establish a technology advisory group to promote a more connected digital economy and technology policies across the government. It will set out policies for the digital economy as well as business support services to accelerate digitalisation and resilience.
In addition to having a robust policy, digital advancements require seamless, reliable connectivity that can support the bandwidth required to function productively. One network alone cannot deliver this robust connectivity. A ‘network of networks’ is needed, from cellular towers to local Wi-Fi networks.
In a world that increasingly relies upon smart devices for business and domestic use, it is imperative that connectivity must not fail, nor can advances in broadband just be limited to an urban elite. In Australia specifically, over 2.5 million people are without internet access and the economic benefits of bringing them online are boundless.
A key piece to this ‘network of networks’ therefore is satellite communications, without which the whole system cannot operate. It offers resilient coverage and high-capacity connectivity, ensuring all areas, no matter how remote on land, at sea or in the air, can be connected in order to strengthen Australia’s vision of a holistic digital economy.
Satellite networks can provide reliable connectivity coverage anytime and anywhere. While an alternative may be to rely on terrestrial networks like cell towers, building just one cell tower is extremely expensive, costing anywhere between $100 – 350k and multiple towers are needed for a large area. Therefore, satellite connectivity, which is already in orbit, available now and which does not require infrastructure investment by the government, is often the simplest to install, and the most reliable and cost-effective option. It can also combine with a cell network and local wireless networks to deliver both maximum resilience and offering to cover the areas that those other networks cannot reach, economically.
High-capacity connectivity for an evolving digital landscape
Digital innovation has contributed to Australia’s economic growth in the past, although it never took centre stage. However, the next wave of digital innovation will create even more economic opportunities as core technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) are applied across various industries and revolutionise traditional business processes. With digital innovation forecasted to deliver $315 billion in gross economic value to Australia within the next decade, we can expect the digital landscape to evolve faster.
In fact, we are already seeing businesses increasing investments and expanding their use of technologies like IoT and AI. According to IDC, almost half of large Australian enterprises (44%) have implemented IoT systems, with many aiming to increase business efficiency and productivity. While on the AI front, more than half of Australian organisations (59%) have implemented AI-as-a-service technology.
To ensure these digital technologies can truly make a positive impact on society, the availability of reliable, high-capacity connectivity is key. Compared to ground communications, satellite connectivity can be easily integrated with other connectivity types and requires minimal infrastructure. This allows businesses to get their digital projects off the ground quicker in order to accelerate their return on investment and match the speed of digitalisation in their industries.
Moreover, to be truly sustainable and fulfil the potential that digital technology offers, agility and continual innovation is required – key attributes of satellite communications.
This is evident in the new generation of satellites and ground infrastructure that has emerged over the past half-decade, which can now see new satellite capacity ordered, built, launched and in operation within eighteen months to two years. This represents a step-change in satellite technology, which could previously take a decade to go from idea to reality.
Such new satellites are also significantly more powerful and advanced, and deliver an order of capacity greater than satellites launched just five years ago. They help address the growing demand for reliable broadband connectivity as more businesses adopt digital applications, enabling different sectors to achieve a much higher digital potential.
Reliable coverage that supports various industry sectors
With an estimated annual revenue of $6.88 billion, Australia’s maritime sector serves as a significant contributor to the country’s economy. Almost all Australia’s exports (95%) are transported via sea, while 10 percent of the world’s sea trade passes through its ports. Strong reliable coverage, catered to the maritime sector, is essential to support the high volume of goods transported.
Digitally-enabling tasks like real-time monitoring of the vessel’s condition or tracking of movement of goods for customers are in strong demand and are facilitated via satellite connectivity.
Access to satellites onboard the vessel is critical as it not only improves operational efficiencies via real-time data, it also ensures the well-being and safety of the crew. Furthermore, connectivity also plays a major role in providing a vital link between seafarers and their families. As the digital landscape evolves and new digital technologies get introduced to the maritime sector, such as IoT sensors onboard, reliable coverage becomes all the more important.
The Australian government relies on the increased capability that is delivered by satellite connectivity in order to achieve its operational requirements.
Due to Australia’s unique position in terms of size, terrain and geographical isolation, government departments have traditionally depended on satellite connectivity for operations such as defence, border protection, weather monitoring, scientific research and public safety. However, the increased capability that satellites can provide became increasingly evident during the 2020 fire-season, and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic.
Satellite communications have become the go-to option enabling critical government teams on the ground to achieve their missions. Such technology enables full connectivity to augment damaged or destroyed terrestrial infrastructure, delivers a means by which to resume economic activity in remote and rural areas, facilitates the resumption of social welfare activities and enables medical testing and telemedicine throughout the vast nation.
Satellite connectivity also serves as a key enabler for Australia’s aviation industry, where domestic capacity is projected to reach a high of 74 percent by the end of this year, as the sector recovers from the Covid-19 disruption.
By tapping into satellite connectivity, aircraft and operators have access to real-time communications and updates on navigation and weather, which improves operational flight efficiency and safety. This is ever more important as airlines adjust to changing travel demands to stay competitive, such as addressing passengers’ demand for inflight connectivity to stream content, access inflight shopping services and generally ensure ongoing web access, which people now take for granted.
While planes are not operating at the same frequency as before, airlines still need to ensure optimal operational capacity to accommodate slowly returning passengers as well as the increase in cargo flights. Real-time data can enable predictive maintenance, so that the ground crew could identify the maintenance needs of the plane even before it lands, thereby reducing aircraft downtime and saving costs.
Satellite communications as the backbone of a digital economy
Satellite communications has become an essential component of Australia’s digital economy. As the country moves towards becoming a world leading digital economy by 2030 and businesses start to leverage digital technologies more heavily, there will be a stronger need for seamless connectivity services across governments and corporations.
As we think about the revolution that next generation communication networks will bring to the digital economy, we also recognise the importance of ensuring that the connectivity needs to also be available for those left outside the connected world, such as many rural communities
. To achieve not only a digital economy, but also a digital society, satellite operators need to work in tandem with terrestrial technologies and others, to deliver high levels of resilience, capacity, capability and coverage that are needed for an extraordinary broadband experience. It is no longer just about one technology or another, but rather all communications technologies coming together to work in harmony, to unlock the full potential of a digital society where everyone is included.
Todd McDonell is President of Inmarsat’s Global Government business having joined Inmarsat in May 2013 as the Vice-President of Global Government solutions and taking up his current position in July 2018.
Todd sits on the Executive Management Board of the Inmarsat Group, a Aus$2.6 billion a year revenue business. An early spell running operational support for the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine communications systems provided him with an education in military communications systems and satellite communications systems.
Following his naval career Todd and some other former Australian Defence personnel created a company called TC Communications focused on the design, delivery and support of satellite communications systems. Todd became chief executive of the TC business in 2000 and grew the business into one of the preeminent Inmarsat partners.
Inmarsat acquired the TC business in May 2013 and integrated it into the Inmarsat Global Government business unit.