Smart to expand Philippine satellite coverage

Mobile operator signs deal with Inmarsat to extend its satellite communications services, complementing its existing SMARTLink voice service, and may eventually be used to deliver Internet access.
Written by Joel D. Pinaroc, Contributor

PHILIPPINES--Local mobile carrier Smart Communications has signed a deal with global satellite company Inmarsat to expand the coverage of its satellite communications services.

The mobile arm of dominant carrier Philippine Long Distance Telephone(PLDT), Smart did not disclose the amount that will be transacted in the new deal, revealing only that it has invested US$5 million to set up a satellite gateway facility outside Metro Manila, which will be used in tandem with Inmarsat's constellation of 10 global satellites.

Smart officials in a media briefing last week said the satellite deal with London-based Inmarsat will complement Smart's existing prepaid satellite voice service, called SMARTLink.

"By 2009, we will further expand the coverage for the SMARTLink prepaid service to be virtually global by utilizing the full Inmarsat-4 constellation," Smart President and CEO Napoleon Nazareno, said in statement. "We will be supported by one of the world's most extensive and sophisticated global satellite networks."

The service will be facilitated through the Inmarsat-4 F-1 satellite, which company officials said can support both voice and data connectivity.

Smart said the service uses a satellite handset with a built-in prepaid card slot. The handset unit, priced at around 14,000 peso (US$312.2), can accommodate multiple users.

SMARTLink currently covers 11 million square miles in Asia, spanning Pakistan in the west to Japan in the east, and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in the south.

With last week's deal, the company said it will extend coverage to India, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, Africa and Pacific Ocean.

Tina Mariano, head of Smart's public access group, said the company is aiming to double the current 60,000 subscriber base it supports for SMARTLink, from the expanded coverage.

Mariano said the mobile operator will particularly target Filipino seafarers, each of whom spends an estimated US$40 per month on communications services. The potential for satellite communications coming from this market segment is large, she noted, with an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 Filipino seafarers currently deployed at sea.

At present, about 90 percent of SMARTLink customers are Filipino seafarers, Mariano said.

The executive added that the expanded SMARTLink service will also cater to ships, yacht owners, private companies and government units, such as the military and public-calling offices scattered across the Philippines.

While the Smart-Inmarsat deal will initially focus on prepaid satellite voice calls, Mariano disclosed that Smart will eventually offer wireless Internet access via satellite.

The executive, however, declined to give a specific timeframe. "It is definitely in Smart's plans to offer wireless Internet access via satellite, but for now, our main focus will be voice services," Mariano said.

The operator last month unveiled a new mobile TV service based on the DVB-H (digital video broadcasting-handheld) standard.

Joel D. Pinaroc is a freelance IT writer based in the Philippines.

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