Airline passengers’ hunger for bandwidth has led to an explosion in demand for satellite space.
Most of the major in-flight connectivity providers signing deals for extra high throughput satellite (HTS) capacity or planning new service launches later this year.
With so many options available to airlines, whether it be Ka- or Ku-band, HTS or, further down the line, low and medium earth orbit (LEO/MEO) satellites – and amid such strong competition for their business among rival service providers – it is little wonder that attempts are underway to minimise confusion.
“I think [the satellite-based in-flight connectivity market] has been very confusing for a long time. We’re working to simplify the message and we’re trying to refocus the conversation to make sure it meets the needs of airlines and passengers,” says Blane Boynton, vice president of product and network solutions at Gogo.
“Ground-like connectivity on every flight: That is our mantra. We’re trying to simplify our offerings because it has been very technical and very confusing to passengers and airlines.”
By taking the emphasis away from ‘Ku versus Ka’, which Boynton insists ‘doesn’t matter’, Gogo has been “really trying to refocus passengers and airlines around differentiation that matters”.
Gogo, which provides both air-to-ground connectivity to carriers in North America and a 2Ku satellite-based service to international customers, is in the process of adding HTS capacity to its 2Ku product to make it faster and more efficient. HTS works by using multiple spot beams to increase the throughput of the satellite, meaning it can transmit more data in a more targeted way.
“With smaller beams, you serve fewer customers within each beam, which means more bandwidth to go around, which results in faster speeds,” explains Gogo.
“The company has already started using HTS capacity over the North Atlantic and will do the same over Europe as additional high throughput satellites come online,” says Boynton.
SES Networks said in February that more than 200 aircraft equipped with Gogo’s 2Ku service are now benefiting from the new HTS capacity on its SES-15 satellite. The satellite entered service in January 2018 and is SES’s first hybrid satellite providing Ku-band wide beams and Ku-band spot beam capacity over North America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
According to the satellite company, Gogo has signed capacity agreements across 11 SES satellites around the world. Last year was a ‘great year’ for 2Ku, says Boynton. In addition to folding in HTS capacity, Gogo activated 2Ku on ‘over 500 aircraft’ and reduced the amount of time it takes to install the system on an aircraft.
“We have the install time down to 36 hours and we can typically do this during prescheduled maintenance,” says Boynton. Installation previously took about five days.
Panasonic Avionics has also been adding HTS capacity to its Ku-band network to cover dense air traffic routes.
The company’s senior director of corporate sales and marketing, Jon Norris, says this ‘third generation network’ will provide airlines and passengers with 20 times more bandwidth than before.
This will improve their ability to stream videos, use voice over IP applications and provide access to more TV channels.
In addition to the HTS service, Panasonic’s upgraded network will be supported by a new satellite modem developed in conjunction with Newtec, which Norris says will be “a key component in delivering faster Internet service”.
Airline customers will need to swap their existing modems for the Newtec version, but this can “easily be carried out on an overnight maintenance input”, says Norris. He adds that the company has “an aggressive plan to upgrade the entire fleet of 1,900-plus Panasonic connected aircraft in the near future”.
Panasonic has also introduced a range of new measures to enable it to provide “higher levels of support to our customers, including enhanced network performance, reduced outage times, and faster response and resolution times for all customer inquiries,”.
“The total capacity of satellite assets is only one part of the value chain that delivers a great connected experience to each and every airline passenger, globally across hundreds of airlines and thousands of aircraft,” he explains.
“Just as important as satellite capacity is the throughput of the on-aircraft equipment, the installation of the system onboard and also the layout and performance of the WAPs [Wireless Access Points]. All of these elements can provide choke points in providing a consistent and positive connected experience.”
To ensure that Panasonic’s message to airlines is clear and can be heard above the noise of its competitors, Norris says: “We try to avoid the ‘numbers game’ and always aim to provide clear guidance to our airline customers in terms of understanding what connected experience they want to offer their customers and what they’re looking to achieve in terms of revenue from those connected services.
“We then recommend appropriate solutions that can deliver a realistic and consistent service that will meet the expectations of their passengers.”
One company that does like to play the ‘numbers game’ is ViaSat, which consistently flags the throughput of its own satellites as a means of differentiating itself as offering the greatest amount of capacity.
While its first satellite, ViaSat-1, provides a throughput capacity of 160 Gbps, ViaSat-2 – which will be commercially available for airline use around the middle of this year – will offer twice that amount.
The latter will expand ViaSat’s coverage beyond the United States to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and the transatlantic corridor between North America and Europe. The first airline customer to benefit from ViaSat-2 will be either American Airlines or El Al.
Its third satellite, ViaSat-3, will offer 1,000 Gbps when it enters service in 2020, according to ViaSat.
ViaSat’s vice president of commercial mobility, Don Buchman, describes the satellite-based in-flight connectivity market as ‘a very confusing environment’, and says there is “still a lot of confusion about what speed means and what capacity means”.
But his message to airlines is concise: “We know that, over time, quality wins out and there has been no degradation in any of our customers over the last four years.”
Buchman adds: “Where we have coverage, we’re doing fantastic. While before [airlines took] a wait and see approach, we now see a lot of forward planning activity for when ViaSat-3 comes online because we’ve already done it twice. We’re very bullish on executing our strategy.”
ViaSat announced in early February that it had signed a contract with United Airlines to install its in-flight entertainment and connectivity system on more than 70 aircraft, including ‘at least’ 58 of the carrier’s new Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
The deal is good news for ViaSat because it makes it a direct in-flight Internet service provider to United Airlines for the first time. While around 325 aircraft in United’s domestic fleet already use ViaSat’s connectivity service, these aircraft were equipped under a partnership deal between ViaSat and Thales.
The aircraft under the direct deal will eventually tap into all three of ViaSat’s satellite platforms, which the company says will enable United “to deliver dependable internet connections gate-to-gate and perform over-the-air content uploads to its onboard entertainment system, ensuring its library has the most current content available”.
Whereas ViaSat and Thales worked in partnership previously, they are increasingly finding themselves in direct competition with one another. Thales plans to launch its own Ka-band in-flight connectivity service over the Americas later this year as part of its FlytLIVE brand.
When the new service launches it will use the existing satellite networks of SES and Hughes Network Systems but the plan is to tap into the SES-17 satellite when it becomes available in late 2020 or early 2021.
Richard Perrot, vice president of marketing and product policy in-flight entertainment and connectivity at Thales, says an undisclosed airline launch customer has been secured for the service.
“We’ll be able to bring enough bandwidth [for passengers] to have an experience similar to what they have on the ground,” says Perrot.
He acknowledges that there is ‘a lot of noise and buzz’ from rival in-flight connectivity providers, but says there are ‘several differentiators’ which he believes set Thales’ planned new offering apart.
“We will have the ability to focus bandwidth to the most congested areas. Instead of having one very large beam we have several smaller beams which give better power in dedicated regions, for example over very crowded cities and on the most crowded routes,” says Perrot.
“This is really the key to bringing a tremendous experience to passengers and it’s the only way to bring streaming to all passengers on board an aircraft.”
Thales has big ambitions for its North American service. However, its plans for other world regions will continue to revolve around its partnership with Inmarsat and the UK-based satellite company’s Global Xpress Ka-band satellite network.
“Our ambition is to become one of the leaders over the Americas. To justify this huge investment is not to be a small player, we’re aiming to grab some very large customers with very large fleets,” says Perrot.
Thales’ key message at this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg will be to showcase the benefits to passengers of digital in-flight entertainment, which Perrot describes as ‘a new era in IFE’.
“Connectivity is just a pipe, an enabler to do digital IFE,” he says, noting that people’s desire to consume content from providers such as Amazon and Netflix means it is ‘important to bring the 21st century on to aircraft’.
“This is now possible due to new types of technology – connectivity being one of them,” says Perrot.
Another in-flight entertainment and connectivity provider that is keen to hammer home the message that it can offer a modern-day entertainment experience to airline passengers that rivals what they have at home is Global Eagle Entertainment.
The company’s vice president aviation sales – Americas, Mike Moeller, says it is “really coming to airlines now with a truly full-service provision”.
“If an airline wants connectivity but they also want to stream movies and offer seatback games and live TV, we can bring all that together to an airline. We’re the only ones doing that,” says Moeller. “We see content and connectivity merging together.”
Global Eagle even has a word for this concept – ‘contentivity’ – which Moeller says involves providing passengers with entertainment content from various sources, including the onboard server and the live connectivity pipe.
In addition to its stored content offering and its existing Airconnect Ku-band in-flight connectivity service, Global Eagle plans to launch a new Ka-band service for US-based airlines later this year.
While details about the new service remain scarce and no launch customer has been announced, Moeller says he hopes it will be operational in the second half of this year. Global Eagle is also bolstering its existing Ku-band connectivity service, the biggest customer being Southwest Airlines.
SES Networks announced in January that Global Eagle had signed an agreement to triple the amount of high throughput satellite capacity on its SES-15 satellite, “to provide airline passengers travelling across North America with a connected in-flight experience far more like the one passengers enjoy on the ground”.
“We want to be agnostic on networks,” says Moeller, lamenting that “today airlines have to choose between Ka and Ku”. Global Eagle provides “interchangeable antennas” which Moeller says gives airlines the option of ‘taking the radome off and switching the antenna’.
“You’ll hear some companies say, ‘go with us, it’s a global network’ and once you get a technology on an aircraft it’s very hard to switch. A lot of players say, ‘we’re going to be the fastest’ and they get the airline locked in, but we have a different opinion.
“We want to be able to move in and out of Ka and Ku, and in and out of LEOs [Low Earth Orbit satellites] and MEOs [Medium Earth Orbit satellites] when they come online,” says Moeller, adding that this ‘flexibility’ will help to drive down the cost of bandwidth.
“2021 is just around the corner in this industry, be cautious about who you select and whether they have flexibility,” says Moeller.