As JetBlue Airways gears up to begin offering free inflight high-speed Internet to passengers, the carrier’s LiveTV subsidiary is setting its sights on expanding its portfolio of airline customers in Europe.
Teamed with satellite operator ViaSat in the United States, LiveTV has been working to bring Ka-band satellite-supported connectivity to JetBlue’s Airbus A320s and Embraer E-Jets. The pairing is also readying to offer connectivity on some 200 Boeing domestic aircraft in United Airlines’ fleet (some of these aircraft have already been fitted with LiveTV’s LTV3 live television system).
But LiveTV – which is spearheading installation and certification of the connectivity system – sees Europe as “a brand new fighting ground for everybody” in the sector because, unlike the United States, Europe does not have a dedicated air-to-ground (ATG) network, and therefore cannot provide cost efficient bandwidth to airlines (as Gogo does today).
In December 2012 LiveTV scored its first European airline customer for Ka-band inflight connectivity when it announced that JetBlue partner Aer Lingus will offer the service on its short-haul fleet, including A320 family aircraft types, from mid-2013. By that time, the Irish carrier had already chosen Panasonic Avionics to provide Ku-band connectivity on its long-haul fleet (mirroring, in some respects, United’s own decision to offer Panasonic Ku on international routes).
“On transatlantic routes, we think Ku is the right answer,” says LiveTV VP of sales and marketing Mike Moeller, in a comment that represents somewhat of a departure for the LiveTV executive, who has long decried the costs associated with Ku. He explains, “So much Ku capacity is coming online over the North Atlantic [especially with the new Intelsat 'Epic' platform, which will be used by Panasonic], that bandwidth costs will sink like a rock. Everyone is pointing beams over the Atlantic, so it will be interesting to see how that market plays out but we try to stay out of the 800-lb gorilla’s footprint.”
At present, no Ka-band satellite operator offers capacity over the Atlantic. LiveTV’s offering is structured to take advantage of regional Ka capacity available over the US, Europe and ultimately the Middle East. And, hard on the heels of winning Aer Lingus as a customer, LiveTV believes it has “the upper hand” with its Ka-band connectivity offering for intra-European routes.
The company has teamed with Eutelsat for Ka-band coverage over Europe. “I’ve got an 80 Gbps satellite over Europe which will give great coverage for intra-European airlines. I’m not offering connectivity on widebodies across the Atlantic, but I’ve got a great product. And there is no entrenched ATG network in Europe,” boasts Moeller.
Because Aer Lingus has chosen two separate connectivity providers in LiveTV and Panasonic, the carrier will be responsible for developing its own connectivity portal, or farming out the work, says Moeller. “So I’m providing the base infrastructure, the base hardware and obviously the bandwidth (through Eutelsat) to the plane, but not the portal.”
One of the “neat parts” about what LiveTV is doing, says Moeller, is the company is using virtually the same antenna on Aer Lingus’ A320s as that which is being installed on JetBlue’s A320 fleet. “We can use the data from FAA certification to get EASA certification because mid-2013 comes pretty quick. That’s the key – to use all of that investment, which has been significant over the last two years. Everything from access points to servers can be taken, copied and brought over to European aircraft. Together with ViaSat and the Eutelsat bird, we’re all working together.”
As it does with ViaSat, LiveTV buys the bandwidth wholesale from Eutelsat. In turn, LiveTV sells the bandwidth to its airline customers. “When we look at Ka, obviously the capacity leads to cheaper bits and bytes,” says Moeller.
Meanwhile, JetBlue is poised to launch LiveTV’s Ka service. “We’re at the brink – the 12th hour – and ready to launch,” says Moeller, adding, “We knew that the Northeast US would end up being congested [with traffic over the Gogo ATG network]. And JetBlue looked at Ku and said, ‘I want to do something else’.”
LiveTV is also confident it will secure many more European customers. “Those airlines that have narrowbody fleets that stay within Europe, we think we have the right answer,” says Moeller.
The JetBlue unit is not concerned about competition from Inmarsat’s forthcoming Global Xpress offering, a global Ka-band network that will come on line for airlines in early 2015. “You sell what you have. If I’m Inmarsat, I’m going to sell global connectivity and if my speeds are not going to be that good or price per megabyte isn’t going to be that good, I’ll sell the concept of global. Even [Intelsat's] Epic is going to have more capacity than their satellites are,” claims Moeller.