Inmarsat, whose constellation of satellites has enabled phone, fax, video and web access from anywhere in the world, said on Wednesday its new Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) would allow data transfers at speeds of up to 492 kilobits per second.

"BGAN is probably our most significant (revenue) growth opportunity in a decade," Inmarsat's Chief Operating Officer Michael Butler told Reuters.

The company expects governments, aid agencies and corporates to be interested in the service, which can be handy in situations where regular communications are difficult or non-existent, or when they have been disrupted by disasters.

Media companies, aid agencies and military forces are traditionally large users of satellite-based communications.

Secure network

Inmarsat has already launched two satellites this year to support this service, the second of which was launched last month. It may launch a third satellite sometime next year.

"BGAN enables users to access their corporate network via a secure VPN (virtual private network) connection, use email and other office applications, browse the internet, send large file attachments, stream video or audio - and make a phone call at the same time," the firm said in a statement.

Satellite internet service is not
affected by weather disruptions

Inmarsat, which was set up as an intergovernmental organisation in 1979 to provide communications to the global maritime community, said BGAN would be cheaper compared with traditional satellite communications, and in some cases cheaper than regular mobile communications.

The cost of transferring one megabyte of data from anywhere in the world was likely to be between $4 to $7, while a voice call was expected to cost under $1 a minute.

"If you take your laptop with a 3G datacard on it, you will pay nearly three times that per megabtye when you are roaming," COO Butler said.

Inmarsat said its BGAN service, which took six years to develop, could be accessed through a range of lightweight satellite terminals, the smallest of which is about half the size of a laptop computer.

Firm orders

These terminals, which are set to cost anywhere between $1500 to $3500, are made by Hughes Network Systems, Nera SatCom and Thrane & Thrane. The manufacturers already have firm orders for 15,000 terminals, Inmarsat said.

Inmarsat said the service would be initially available across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and would be extended to North and South America during the second quarter of 2006.

Shares in Inmarsat, which raised ?355 million via an initial public offering last June, closed 1.33% down at 335 pence, giving it a market value of around ?1.53 billion ($2.65 billion).