IMO recognised the potential for satellite communications to assist in distress situations at sea soon after the launch of the world's first telecommunications satellite, Telstar, in 1962 .In February 1966, IMO's Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) decided to study the operational requirements for a satellite communications system devoted to maritime purposes.
In 1973, IMO decided to convene a conference with the object of establishing a new maritime communications system based on satellite technology.
The Conference first met in 1975 and held three sessions, at the third of which, in 1976, the Convention on the International Maritime Satellite Organization was adopted, together with an Operating Agreement.
The Convention defines the purposes of Inmarsat as being to improve maritime communications, thereby assisting in improving distress and safety of life at sea communications, the efficiency and management of ships, maritime public correspondence services, and radiodetermination capabilities.
The Organization consists of an Assembly, composed of all Parties to the Inmarsat Convention; Council composed of 22 representatives of signatories; and a Directorate headed by a Director-General. An Annex to the Convention outlines procedures for the settlement of disputes.
The Operating Agreement set an initial capital ceiling for the Organization of US$ 200 million. Investment shares were determined on the basis of utilization of the Inmarsat space segment.Inmarsat, headquartered in London, began operations in 1982.
Inmarsat's obligation to provide maritime distress and safety services via satellite were enshrined within the 1988 amendments to SOLAS which introduced the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Ships sailing in specified sea areas are required to carry Inmarsat communications equipment for distress and safety calls and to receive navigational warnings. At present, the Inmarsat system is the only mobile-satellite system recognized by SOLAS Contracting Governments for use in the GMDSS.
The 1994 amendments changed the name of the Organization to the International Mobile Satellite Organization, abbreviated to Inmarsat. The change reflected changes since the Organization was formed and the extension of its services from the maritime sector to other modes of transport.
In 1998, Inmarsat's Assembly of member Governments agreed to privatize Inmarsat from April 1999. The new structure comprises two entities:
- Inmarsat Ltd - a public limited company which forms the commercial arm of Inmarsat. The company has taken on all the commercial activities of Inmarsat and is regulated by British law. It was completely privatised by the end of 2003.
- International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) - an intergovernmental body established to ensure that Inmarsat continues to meet its public service obligations, including obligations relating to the GMDSS. IMSO is an observer at IMO meetings.
IMSO is headquartered in London and has around 100 Member States. It aims to guarantee that services are provided by Inmarsat Ltd. free from any discrimination and in a peaceful way to all persons living or working in locations that are inaccessible to conventional, terrestrial means of communication. IMSO also ensures that the principles of fair competition are observed.