Inflight connectivity rivals face off in the race to provide satellite coverage for airlines

February 22, 2012

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Satellite 5 Inmarsat.small  Inflight connectivity rivals face off in the race to provide satellite coverage for airlinesA few years ago Airbus warned the industry that a dot-com-like bubble could form if airlines continued to chase higher-bandwidth airborne communications solutions instead of taking advantage of the connectivity hardware that already comes factory-fit on many new aircraft.

The European airframer was understandably concerned. It had already begun delivering aircraft with a lightweight, low profile, Inmarsat L-band satellite-supported SwiftBroadband antenna system that could provide a range of connectivity functions – including a managed internet experience (up to 432 kbps) for passengers – whilst its OnAir joint venture with SITA provided the service.

On the other side of the pond, Airbus archrival Boeing was still on the fence about inflight connectivity after the mid-decade failure of its own in-house Ku-band satellite-based communications service, Connexion by Boeing (the service worked great; the business case didn’t).

What a difference a few years can make. Today, with consumers showing an insatiable appetite for bandwidth on the ground, and airlines keen to meet the expectations of tech-savvy travellers, Airbus and Boeing have warmed to installing higher bandwidth Ku systems (with speeds of up to 3 mbps down and 1 mbps up) – complete with requisite bulky antennas – from the factory floor.

Although Airbus still offers SwiftBroadband-supported Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity via OnAir, the manufacturer now also gives customers of its newest widebody, the A350 XWB, the option of inflight entertainment (IFE) company Panasonic Avionics’ competing Ku connectivity system for high-speed internet and mobile communications.

Boeing, meanwhile, is delivering 777s with SwiftBroadband, but has also resumed delivering the twinjet widebodies with systems that operate via Ku satellites in the 12.5-18 GHz frequency range (though this time Boeing is working with Panasonic).

But the game is about to change again. Inmarsat in 2010 announced plans to launch a “super-fast” global aeronautical service in the Ka-band space (the spectrum between 26.5 GHz and 40 GHz). Three Boeing-built Ka satellites will be launched into orbit to support the so-called Global Xpress service, which is expected to start coming on line at the end of 2013.

Inmarsat Global Xpress Inflight connectivity rivals face off in the race to provide satellite coverage for airlines

 

OnAir and US-based connectivity provider Gogo have been picked by Inmarsat to distribute the service, a move that will pit the two companies against Panasonic and its Ku offering and will undoubtedly give airframers another connectivity service to consider. In fact, Airbus is eyeing Global Xpress as an option for the A350 XWB.

As such, Panasonic is striving to quickly fill the gaps in its Ku coverage before Inmarsat makes headway with its Global Xpress plan.

But there are other moving parts to the story. In the retrofit market, where connectivity systems are bolted onto aircraft post-delivery, Panasonic, Gogo and OnAir are up against two companies that have already won key deals with low-cost carriers – Row 44’s Ku service and ViaSat’s regional Ka service, which it is augmenting with Ku.

Perhaps predictably, an escalating war of words has emerged amongst Ku and Ka stakeholders, with each party claiming their solution is the best and most cost efficient.

MAPPING A PLAN

Boasting several different partnerships with satellite operators, including with AsiaSat, Intelsat, Telesat, GE and more recently RuSat in Russia, and with more in the works, Panasonic “had a big push toward the end of 2011 to bring a lot of new regions on line”, says Panasonic Avionics VP, global communications services David Bruner.

“The things we’ll close out in first quarter include turning on the west coast of Africa, and later in April or May, a new satellite going up will provide coverage over east Africa, which will give us coverage over Africa, and then South America will probably come on line early second quarter. JSAT, a Japanese company, is providing service in the area from Southeast Asia to India. One of the most important ones we’ve been working on is China and we’re hoping to wrap that up shortly. We’ll probably pop the Dom Perignon when that happens because that has been long time in coming but will be worth it because it will put us in a very attractive [position] to have seamless coverage everywhere.”

Bruner says Panasonic conducted deep analysis with Inmarsat on Global Xpress, but reached a point where Global Xpress “did not meet our requirements”. He suggests that Ka “is harder to develop and would have been worth it if we could achieve the cost benefit and get the market success that we wanted. But it became clear that it wasn’t going to do that for us. There are a whole lot of costs in migrating to Ka.”

Instead of pursuing Ka Panasonic has set out to develop what it claims will be a better solution than Global Xpress for the commercial market. “To do that, we’re going to enhance our Ku network so that it is the best performing satellite service for the aeronautical world,” says Bruner.

This so-called Next Generation Satellite Network will offer “some Ku capacity everywhere but real big capacity in the areas where you have lots and lots of airplanes. It will be high throughput, augmenting our existing network, and allowing us to gracefully migrate to much greater capacity and not have to design, install, and certify new equipment, and not have to get Boeing and Airbus offerability on a new [Ka] antenna.”

FAST RAMP-UP

Keen to bring Global Xpress to market to meet what it sees as quickly growing demand – and cognizant of the gains already made by Panasonic – Inmarsat is pressing forward with an aggressive rollout schedule that will see it conduct a large number of on-ground trials over other Ka satellites already in orbit.

This will allow Inmarsat to “simulate every piece of our system before our [own] satellites go up”, says Global Xpress managing director Leo Mondale. Inmarsat expects to launch its first ‘Inmarsat-5’ Ka-band satellite in the middle of 2013 over Europe, the Middle East and Africa region. “Within a few months of launching, it will be available for testing and trials and shortly after that for commercial service,” says Mondale, noting: “Obviously half the people in the world are in the line of view of that satellite. That is our critical march to market.”

Two more Ka-band satellites will be launched within a year. Inmarsat aims to offer worldwide coverage for the aviation markets by mid-2014.

Mondale is confident in Inmarsat’s decision to team with OnAir and Gogo – companies whose primary focus is not inflight entertainment – versus IFE firms like Panasonic. “The risk we run in teaming close with IFE [manufacturers] as a primary interest is that connectivity would be a secondary one, not a primary. We want to support all of the IFE models out there with the connectivity components which will vary from IFE model to IFE model, but there are a lot of models out there so we think focusing on connectivity makes sense.”

OnAir CEO Ian Dawkins says: “Inmarsat didn’t have perhaps quite the success it wanted with SwiftBroadband (in commercial air transport). We’ve made it a success for them. And by partnering [on Global Xpress] we can get this service up quickly. We’re planning to fit terminals on some aircraft in 2013.”

He asserts that, with Ku-based inflight connectivity, “you’ll find it [the service] will cut out as it goes from one satellite provider to the next. Also, there are regions around the world not covered with Ku. It’s no secret [that] it’s a patchwork quilt. Global Xpress for me will be 30% greater capacity or throughput than any Ku service. Ku will not ever be able to do that in a the way it’s set up today and for me, if you look at Ku’s footprint, they will have to launch satellites over regions that they want to extend coverage to.”

But Global Xpress is not going to the only Ka game in town; in fact, if all goes as planned, regional Ka services from ViaSat will be realised first. [Below, ViaSat demonstrates how satellite-supported inflight connectivity works.]

How satellite connectivity works Viasat 300x220 Inflight connectivity rivals face off in the race to provide satellite coverage for airlinesLast year ViaSat launched what is claims is “the highest capacity satellite in the world”, a Ka spot beam satellite covering North America and Hawaii. The technology is expected to support high-speed connectivity for JetBlue Airways’ fleet of Airbus A320s and Embraer 190s, and over 200 Boeing aircraft operating for United-Continental.

“We’re still on schedule, meeting our milestones, working with JetBlue [and its subsidiary LiveTV] to introduce service as planned. The notion is to have the first [test] flight in the late summer/early fall, but the plan is to introduce commercial service before the end of the calendar year,” says ViaSat director for mobile broadband strategy and business development Bill Sullivan.

“We have lots of capacity available. We introduced our commercial broadband service for the residential market in mid-January, offering speeds up to 12 mbps downstream and up to 3 mbps upstream. That’s pretty similar to what we plan to be putting on aircraft. Exactly how it will manifest itself is in some measure up to the airline and those specific service plans are being worked out.”

A Ka satellite launched by Eutelsat in late 2010 is expected to support inflight connectivity in Europe. “Basically, the mobility enhancements for the Eutelsat network will be available to Eutelsat in roughly the same timeframe as we have them here,” says Sullivan.

BETTING GAME

Not surprisingly, players within the Ku space are less optimistic that the timelines being quoted for offering Ka inflight connectivity. “If a major political party’s best pollsters can’t tell you which candidate will win a given primary vote even the day before, then I doubt even the smartest prognosticator can tell you in what year a Ka-band satellite service will be ready. I’ve been outspoken publicly about the tremendous complexity in getting a new band of satellite signal launched into space and making it commercially viable. Any estimate on when to expect Ka is about as scientific as betting on 17 black,” says Howard Lefkowitz, chief commercial officer at Row 44, which leases Ku capacity from Hughes and Intelsat.

“As you know, Row 44′s extensive relationships for satellite services (Ku and Ka, when the service is viable) give us rapid access to satellite coverage virtually anywhere in the world – and Ku satellite coverage is ubiquitous, available almost at a moment’s notice. When we announce Ku-band coverage in a new region it will coincide with an airline (or several) in that region announcing that they are partnering with Row 44 for inflight broadband entertainment.”

But Wale Adepoju, CEO of consultancy IMDC, says that in his experience of evaluating connectivity systems on behalf of airlines, “the key issue is less about Ku or Ka than actual market return, and trying to justify capital expenditure is quite a difficult thing. Now there is a lot of focus on the economics of it, the fuel burn. It’s not the sort of decision that can be made lightly.”

He says he sees “a real disconnect between the debate going on which technology is going to be used and the actual economics of passenger experience. Instead you start to look at the operational benefits that connectivity brings to airlines, and you flip it [the business case] on its head. The analogy for me with connectivity is if you were building a hotel, of course you would need to put in wireless so customers could get on the internet. But if you try to charge or not, it will not make a financial impact at all on the cost of the network. But the mere fact that you have an IT network in your building does have an impact.

“What is true is the customer will always want more broadband. Even if we went to Ka, it still wouldn’t be fast enough.”

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About Mary Kirby

Editor in Chief - APEX Media Platform | Previously Senior Editor at Flight International where she led the magazine's coverage of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) and aircraft interiors | Former proprietor of the highly-regarded Runway Girl blog, which focused on the passenger experience | Regularly speaks at industry conferences about airborne communications, ancillary revenue opportunities for airlines and social media | You can connect with Mary on Twitter, LinkedIn

View all posts by Mary Kirby
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2 Responses to “Inflight connectivity rivals face off in the race to provide satellite coverage for airlines”

  1. Speedbird_NCL Says:

    Airlines also have a big business dilemma, when to invest in satellite connectivity hardware. Satellite antenna are expensive and take time to retrofit on an airlines entire fleet, if the airline has both Boeing and Airbus fleets the problem in finding a common hardware solution is even greater.
    Operationally connectivity requirements, as you point out will intensify as airlines strive to stay competitive, in market were business traveller’s are the focus, it is obvious that airlines will need to provide connectivity speeds their customers experienced in the lounge before they boarded. Realistically Ka-band is the only real answer if an airlines return on investment (RTO) is to be realised.
    While some airlines wait for Ka-band coverage to arrive, a connectivity option they have is to invest in the slower L-band SwiftBroadband antenna. There is good reason this would be a wise business decision.
    In the longer term separating the flight deck connectivity and the IFE connectivity makes complete sense from an IT security perspective, both Boeing and Airbus have put a lot of work into there on-board hardware solutions to provide this, but the two sides of the aircraft are still connected.
    From an airline operational perspective if subversive activity has been detected (or even un-detected) what do they do, ground one aircraft or even a fleet until the problem is resolved.
    Airlines flight deck connectivity requirements are relatively small and L-band would satisfy long-term needs, so to invest now and retrofit fleets would show a RTO with a common L-band operational solution supporting passenger need for connectivity until Ka-Band coverage is available. Once airlines decide to invest in Ka-band they would then decouple the passenger from the flight deck by installing separate independent passenger solution.
    Choosing this connectivity strategy, would however require aircraft to carry two antennas which would then effect the fuel efficiency of the aircraft, but I guess that’s a technology challenge for the future!!

    Reply

    • Mary Kirby Says:

      The scenario you describe will require Global Xpress to be on time. If anything serves to significantly delay roll-out (delay in satellite launches, delay in reaching agreement on a primary terminal unit provider, delay in certifying the terminal units, etc, etc) then airlines could be waiting at least a few years before Ka is realised. Rockwell Collins and Inmarsat was expected to sign a formal agreement at the end of last year. We’re heading into March and no agreement has been signed. I guess it comes down to how much voluntary underlying development is happening at the antenna manufacturers. At the same time, Ku clearly still has some big gaps to fill. And, as previously reported here, there are plenty of challenges to operating Ku antennas near the equator. There are so many moving parts to this story – quite literally! I’m scheduled to moderate the inflight connectivity panel at Satellite 2012 in DC; I’m really looking forward to it. Shall I see you there?

      Reply

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