Satellite group plans pounds 1bn move to market

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INMARSAT, the international satellite group in which British Telecom holds a significant stake, is preparing a pounds 1bn flotation within the next two years after its owners cleared a restructuring which will turn the group into conventional company.

More than 81 countries have a stake in Inmarsat, mostly through their national telecom companies. The group, which was originally set up to provide distressed sailors with a way of signalling for help, has nine satellites stationed in space allowing it to provide one of the only truly global networks for mobile communications.

However, Inmarsat's co-operative structure means it is ill-equipped to raise the new investment it needs to upgrade its network. The group needs to raise $2.5bn (pounds 1.5bn) to buy and launch five new satellites which will support Horizon, a new superfast data communications service which will allow computer users to access the internet from anywhere in the world, and will be on the market from 2002.

Major shareholders such as BT, which owns 8 per cent of the company, had threatened to refuse further investment if the company did not change its structure.

If the change is approved by Inmarsat's Assembly next month, it will become a conventional company. For the first year, shareholders will be allowed to buy shares from each other. Inmarsat is also expected to invite equipment suppliers to take equity stakes. The company has the power to issue up to $500m in new shares.

Subsequently, new investors will be allowed in before the company is floated - probably in New York and London. The flotation could bring a windfall worth several hundreds of millions of pounds for BT.