When a devastating earthquake hit china’s Sichuan province in 2008 the majority of the foreign companies operating in the region fled for safety. As in many natural disasters the area’s telecommunications – one of the most essential pieces of infrastructure required to help emergency services during relief efforts — was destroyed, making it nigh on impossible for those affected to get in touch with family and friends or for rescue effects to find those in urgent need of help.
Days later, the British satellite company Inmarsat was sending and receiving critical information via some 600-700 of its broadband global area network (BGAN) terminals. In fact the company became renowned locally as one of the only firms operating in the days that followed the earthquake.
Less than five years later China is the British satellite company’s fastest growing market and it is one of only three mobile service providers that operate satellite beams over the Asian powerhouse.
“The Sichuan earthquake was a real catalyst for us because we were virtually the only service operating and the Chinese government recognised the vital role we played. Once that happened the investment into our services by the Chinese ministries increased, which allowed us to really expand dramatically,” Inmarsat executive chairman Andrew Sukawaty tells Arabian Business.
“We’re not an everyday consumer service,” he adds. “We’re not branded because we’re a global backbone but when people need us in these remote environments and disasters we are there and people realise that and then they plan for us. That’s what we saw happening in China,” he adds.
As the Sichuan earthquake exemplifies, Inmarsat’s satellite devices do more than simply provide communication tools. They enable journalists in war zones to send their videos and reports back to office, aid agencies to provide vital emergency services and airline passengers to surf the internet and call home. As such the British firm — which was originally founded as a non-profit satellite communications network for the maritime community but has since been privatised — boasts clients ranging from governments to aid agencies, media outlets and businesses.
Today, roughly 40 percent of Inmarsat’s overall business is generated through its governmental operations, which offer telecommunications for defence, public safety, emergency services and disaster response services (the US government accounts for twelve percent of its overall business) while 60 percent comes from its maritime business, which provides end-to-end service availability and global coverage for operational communications and safety services. Other smaller areas of the business include land and aero services with telecommunications to the airline industry one of its fastest growing divisions.
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“We are a quiet behind-the-scenes kind of company. A lot people don’t know us as we’re often branded as other things but that’s fine with us. We’re a global infrastructure company that supports a variety of applications so land, sea, air and remote environments,” explains Sukawaty.
In the Middle East, the company’s second fastest growing market, accounting for around 15-20 percent of its overall business, clients include regional governments and airlines such as Emirates. “We project that from 2013-2015 we will grow 8-12 percent [overall]. Probably the Middle East will be a little bit higher than that because the region is rapidly growing area. That’s on the back of both our existing services and our new Global Xpress (GX) broadband as well,” says Sukawaty.
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