By: Reza Rasoulian is VP at Hughes Network Systems
If a passenger on a commercial aircraft didn’t know it already, an attempt to get on the internet using the on-board Wi-Fi network would quickly demonstrate the limitations of in-flight connectivity. Email is slow, and using a program that depends on a back-and-forth exchange of data is nearly impossible, especially when most of the other passengers are also trying to share the limited bandwidth.
These networks in the sky rely on satellite connections to operate. For the last decade, global satellite operators have launched new, more powerful spacecraft to provide additional broadband to customers like the airlines. To date, these have been satellites in the geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles (36,000 km) from Earth. However, the fact is that they just can’t keep up with bandwidth demand. Now a new generation of satellites operating in low-earth orbit (LEO), between 600 and 1,000 miles (960 and 1,600 km) above the planet, is being hailed as a solution. And it doesn’t require airlines to ‘rip and replace’ existing GEO equipment.
Now, with a LEO connection, a new kind of antenna, and the proper networking software, an airline can deploy a “hybrid” network that can connect to both LEO and GEO satellites, offering more bandwidth for passengers connecting to the internet and more reliable connections for email and other business applications.
As airline executives with existing GEO-only solutions on their aircraft begin to look at hybrid options using LEO, they should keep in mind four important considerations:
1. Does the provider offer committed information rates and service-level agreements, or simply “best-effort” service?
2. Does the antenna weight, size, form, and mounting meet the avionics industry standards used by airlines worldwide?
3. How easily and cost effectively can the new LEO equipment be integrated with existing GEO systems on aircraft currently in operation?
4. Does the system have a network-management tool that can automatically leverage connections from a LEO and a GEO satellite depending on which is the most efficient and the best fit for the situation?
If airlines are ever to make in-flight connectivity a steady revenue generator, carriers are going to have to provide reliable service to passengers. Some LEO operators only offer a “best-effort” service, which is typical of a consumer offering. Many satellite operators, particularly those that provide bandwidth to enterprise and government customers, are familiar with the requirements of committed information rates and service level agreements. This same level of service should be demanded by airlines adding LEO satellites for hybrid connectivity. What is also important to note is that satellite capacity to aircraft needs to be managed in a manner to ensure an excellent user experience is maintained throughout the flight, gate to gate.
The most essential component of these hybrid networks is the electronically steerable antenna (ESA), a device considerably different than a GEO antenna now found on airplanes. Satellites in GEO are at a fixed position relative to the Earth below, so a GEO antenna on the ground can be pointed at a GEO satellite and require little adjustment. Even on a commercial jet traveling at 550 miles (885 kilometers) an hour, tracking the satellite is not difficult since it is ‘fixed’ in space. On the other hand, a LEO satellite passes over a given spot on Earth in just a few minutes, requiring hundreds of satellites to provide continuous global coverage anywhere. An antenna on the ground or on an airplane needs the ability to switch seamlessly from one passing satellite about to go over the horizon to the next one coming along to ensure stable in-flight connectivity – no small feat when the antenna is also flying through the air.
Hughes has developed an ESA for aeronautical applications with no moving parts and a small form factor using a fraction of the power of any other LEO aero antenna. It also boasts autonomous antenna operation so that it doesn’t need to connect to the aircraft navigation system. And, at less than 115 pounds for the entire solution, it meets avionics industry standards for weight, size and mounting. It can be installed in an existing radome of a commercial jet in just two to four days, depending on the experience of the installers. That’s about half the time of a typical antenna installation.
To integrate the connections to multiple satellites, my company has developed Fusion In-Flight that works with any GEO IFC solution deployed today using the OneWeb constellation of LEO satellites. The software routes data over the optimal blend of transport paths based on quality of service (QoS) requirements. The software recognizes when user requirements for an active traffic flow change, and automatically optimizes routing over GEO or LEO as needed to maintain specific performance metrics. The server works seamlessly with existing GEO modems and onboard Wi-Fi access points at speeds up to 195 Mbps and 32 Mbps from the aircraft.
The OneWeb constellation is just coming into service, and the Hughes ESA is in the final stages of testing. As a global OneWeb aero distribution partner, Hughes expects to have Fusion In-Flight service available in late 2024 or early 2025, giving airlines time to plan for the service and the installation of the ESAs on existing aircraft.
The research firm NSR predicts that the number of satellite receivers on commercial and private aircraft will increase from 71,000 currently to over 145,000 units by 2032, a growth rate of more than 7% a year. Fed by passenger demand, the aviation industry needs to connect airplanes to satellites that are more technically advanced and more powerful. Airlines need to look for the best solutions, ones that take advantages of all the satellite industry has to offer.