Executive Achievement: Ben Palmer O.B.E., President, Inmarsat Maritime
(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2022 edition.)
After serving his country with distinction and spending another 15 years in the defense industry, Palmer was looking for a new challenge. He found it at Inmarsat, the global leader in mobile satellite communications, where he now heads its all-important Maritime division.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m British, married with three teenage children and live south of London. I was educated at Oxford where I read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and later spent a year on sabbatical as a Sloan Fellow at the London Business School. After university, I joined the British Government and spent a dozen or so years at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). I served in a range of policy, planning and crisis management roles, rising to become a member of the Senior Civil Service.
Since then, I’ve worked at BAE Systems, where I served in strategy and business development leadership roles within the naval ships, submarines and systems piece of the business; as a strategy consultant at Alix Partners, where I worked on business improvement and turnaround projects for clients in the oil and gas and commercial aerospace arenas; and at Northrop Grumman, where most recently I was the Managing Director of a $500 million portfolio of defense and commercial businesses in the U.K. and Europe.
Wow, impressive! We note the initials “O.B.E.” after your name – “Order of the British Empire” – a high honor. What was it awarded for?
I was privileged to be awarded the O.B.E. by the late Queen, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, at the age of 30 in recognition of my contribution to supporting military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the aftermath of 9/11.
November marked the one-year anniversary of your appointment as President of Inmarsat Maritime – congratulations! What brought you to Inmarsat, and what were some highlights of your first year at the helm?
It’s been a very busy twelve months. I’m new to the commercial shipping industry, so I had to do a lot of learning on the go – understanding the needs of our customers across the globe, recognizing the key drivers of Inmarsat’s performance and identifying ways to improve what we do. And, of course, it’s been vital to get out and about and meet our globally dispersed team.
So there’s been a lot of travelling, listening and learning, and a fair bit too of reflecting, reframing and resetting around priorities and areas of focus and aligning the team accordingly. It’s been hard work, but great fun and has lived up to my expectations in terms of why I took the role. I was looking forward to taking on a new challenge in a new industry with a high-quality team, looking to drive improved performance.
Inmarsat – originally the International Maritime Satellite Organization – was established more than 40 years ago by the IMO. Give our readers a brief overview of its mission and evolution over the years.
Yes, it was originally established by the IMO to provide a satellite communications network for protecting lives at sea. It later became the first satellite operator to meet the stringent requirements of the Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GMDSS). Today, we operate across the entire spectrum of Maritime, Aviation, Land and Government with customers all over the globe and turnover of approximately $1.5 billion a year. About half of our 1,800 or so staff are based in London with the remainder across the world.
Our extensive mobile connectivity system – the most advanced and reliable in the world – ensures that our satellite services not only safeguard lives but also deliver the secure connectivity required to meet the evolving challenges of modern mobility. We’ve been a private company for many years and – having previously been listed on the London Stock Exchange – are now owned by a consortium of private equity firms. We’re currently in the process of being acquired by U.S.-based ViaSat, as announced a year ago.
Is Maritime still the biggest division?
Tell us about some of its products and services – Fleet Xpress, for example.
Fleet Xpress is designed to meet the unprecedented demand for data in modern shipping as the industry becomes increasingly dependent on advanced digital technology. A modular solution that allows companies to add more bandwidth as their digital ecosystems evolve, it supports everything from email and basic office applications to IoT-powered solutions and other innovations. Fleet Xpress is therefore the backbone to many operators’ digitalization strategies, helping them address new and emerging requirements surrounding operational efficiency, decarbonization and crew welfare.
On the topic of crew welfare, Fleet Hotspot is a seafarer connectivity solution that we designed to simplify crew Internet access. Powered by Fleet Xpress, Fleet Hotspot enables seafarers to enjoy high-speed connectivity and all the benefits that brings, using their own device on board. The service offers a dedicated network, meaning crew can surf the Internet, contact loved ones, and stream video and music in their free time without interfering with mission-critical bandwidth.
Much of my time at Inmarsat has been dedicated to another of our solutions, Fleet Safety, which we launched in September. As the natural successor to our industry-leading safety service, Inmarsat C, Fleet Safety has already been granted IMO approval under GMDSS requirements. The voice and data service, delivered via existing Fleet Broadband or Fleet One capabilities, will push GMDSS forward in shipping’s digital area, especially through its Distress Chat function, which puts users in direct contact with over 50 maritime rescue coordination centers worldwide.
Why is connectivity so important to the maritime business?
From a safety perspective, connectivity has been critical to the maritime industry for decades, but today, against a backdrop of fast-changing regulations and rapid technological advancement, shipping companies rely on satellite communications for a lot more than safety.
Connectivity is the backbone of digitalization. By enabling digital solutions and data processes critical to efficient and sustainable fleet operations, it helps owners reduce fuel consumption and comply with the requirements of regulators, charterers, clients and finance providers. It also facilitates remote services such as surveys and machinery monitoring, which can save the shipowner a significant amount of time and money.
Moreover, with the growing emphasis on crew welfare highlighting the need for fast, high-quality onboard Internet access, connectivity is increasingly important to a shipping company’s competitiveness as an employer.
What’s your vision for Inmarsat Maritime? Where do you want to take it?
It’s a fascinating time to be in the satellite communications business. Inmarsat is the global leader in the maritime domain with that market leadership position built around its geostationary (GEO) satellite network. The market is growing as customers look to harness the power of connectivity to exploit data to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their business operations, reduce their carbon emissions and enable crew welfare. At the same time, new entrants are coming into the market.
My vision is to reignite and sustain Inmarsat’s growth, ensuring that we retain and strengthen our market leadership position by doubling down on our reputation for reliable, secure global coverage and embracing our customer’s increasing demand for “seamless connectivity.” Orchestrating our multilevel network and developing the intelligent, managed services that underpin it are very much in focus for the team as we chart a course for the future.
What makes Inmarsat Maritime different from its competitors?
Inmarsat is the world leader in global mobile satellite communications, and our connectivity services offer unparalleled reliability and coverage. In Global Xpress, we own and operate the only mobile high-speed broadband network that seamlessly spans the world and, from 2023, provides dedicated Arctic coverage. Meanwhile, ORCHESTRA will redefine connectivity at scale with the highest capacity for mobility worldwide and at hotspots, as well as the highest average speeds and lowest average latency of any network.
Beyond that, I would highlight our strong identification with safety at sea, our rich heritage in the industry and the quality of our people, culture and values. That’s a powerful foundation on which to build.
What’s your biggest challenge right now?
One of the greatest challenges currently facing Inmarsat, and indeed the satellite communications industry in general, is also one of the most overlooked: space sustainability. Most people now recognize the threat global warming poses to life on Earth, but not many are aware of what is going on in space and the impact that could have on the health of our planet. However, emerging evidence suggests that if the various mega-constellation projects currently planned or in progress are seen through to completion, our planet will come under serious threat from aluminum particles and space junk.
By 2030, there could be as many as 100,000 active satellites in low-Earth orbit, and when these satellites inevitably de-orbit and decay they will deposit vast quantities of aluminum into the upper atmosphere, potentially accelerating the greenhouse effect. Moreover, those satellites that do not fully combust upon entering the atmosphere pose a more immediate threat when the debris crashes down to Earth – and the more satellites there are in orbit, the greater this risk becomes.
Nonetheless, when deployed responsibly, satellites – and specifically the connectivity they provide – can prove invaluable in our efforts to combat climate change. It’s therefore essential that the industry do more to sustain a space environment that can continue to provide the benefits of connectivity in the decades and centuries to come.
Against this background, Inmarsat’s recently launched “Space Sustainability Report” calls for a “coalition of the willing” – an alliance that would see participating countries commit to shared principles, regulations and coordinating mechanisms for safe space operations and orbital development.
What excites you most about your job?
I’m excited about the vital role we play in keeping seafarers safe and enabling our customers to operate more efficiently and effectively while reducing their impact on the planet. I’m driven by a strong urge to make a positive impact on the performance of our business, and I’m engaged by the incredible people with whom I get to work.
Jack O’Connell is the magazine’s Senior Editor.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.