Printed headline: Jostling for Space
Satellite-based inflight connectivity is a hot topic, accompanied by a mind-boggling list of descriptive acronyms that grows longer by the day.
From Ku- and Ka-band to HTS and XTS to LEO, GEO and MEO, the options—both current and future—from which airlines can choose appear almost endless.
While some providers have invested heavily in their own satellite equipment, others lease capacity and can take a more flexible, agnostic approach to the type of connectivity they offer.
The new kid on the block is the low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellite, constellations of which are under development by OneWeb, Telesat and SpaceX. The idea is that multiple relatively small satellites situated in much lower orbits—750 mi. up, as opposed to 22,000 mi. for geostationary (GEO) satellites—will result in reduced latency and a lower risk of signal loss.
OneWeb founder and Executive Chairman Greg Wyler is convinced that when airlines start tapping into his 900-strong constellation of satellites for inflight connectivity (IFC) from 2020, they and their passengers will notice a significant improvement over existing satellite-based connectivity services.
Wyler lists the key benefits of LEO-based IFC as being “lower latency, gate-to-gate connectivity and a continuous connection from multiple satellites, which eliminates the drop from any polar routes.”
Richard Nordstrom, senior director strategic marketing for Rockwell Collins’ Information Management Services-Commercial Aviation & Network Services division, says the “massive amount of spectrum” and lower latency associated with LEO satellites is what “very much attracted us” to OneWeb.
Rockwell Collins is developing a OneWeb-compatible satellite terminal with an electronically steered array antenna, which Nordstrom says is better suited to the task of frequently connecting to multiple satellites than a mechanically steered model.
In the past, airlines tended to choose a single provider offering a specific type of IFC service, but this is now changing, and carriers are increasingly “willing to mix up the type of connectivity,” observes Nordstrom.
“Many larger airlines have multiple [connectivity service providers], and this trend will continue as the evolution of new networks accelerates,” he says.
This trend has prompted some providers, such as Global Eagle Entertainment, to take a more agnostic approach, which they say provides increased flexibility to airline customers. Global Eagle is developing a Ka-band IFC service to complement its existing Airconnect Ku-band service, which itself is being bolstered by extra capacity from the geostationary SES-15 high-throughput satellite (HTS).
Another provider adding capacity to its Ku-band service while keeping an open mind about the next generation of satellite technology is Panasonic Avionics. The company, which expects more than 10,000 aircraft to be equipped with its IFC solution by 2025, announced in March that it had joined forces with APT Mobile Satcom (Apsatcom) to bring what Panasonic calls “extreme-throughput satellite” (XTS) technology to high-density Asian markets.
Panasonic “has been talking about XTS for a few years,” says Todd Hill, the company’s senior director of global satellite capacity planning, but this recent announcement “turns the road map to reality.”
“XTS is loosely defined as really small spot beams,” explains Hill. These beams mean that a large amount of capacity can be focused on “very-high-density areas” such as Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong in the case of the first satellite. Second and third satellites will cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa and the Americas regions, respectively, and “all will be in service by 2022,” says Hill.
XTS capacity will “help drive the cost down” for passengers, adds Hill, bringing about “a much better user experience at a much better price point.” It will be rolled into what Panasonic describes as its third-generation communications network, which it says will provide airlines and passengers with 20 times more bandwidth than its previous network.
The improved network will be supported by Newtec’s new satellite modem, to which existing Panasonic customers will be able to easily upgrade during a typical overnight maintenance event.
But as it rolls out these improvements to its GEO satellite-based IFC solution, Panasonic is keeping a close eye on developments in the LEO and MEO (medium-Earth-orbit) satellite space. Hill says the next version of the satellite terminals used for Panasonic’s existing service “will definitely be compatible” with LEO and MEO technology as it emerges, although he believes there are questions about these new satellites that still need to be answered.
“The LEO and MEO guys are promising a lot, and they have really good marketing,” says Hill. “Our system will be able to take advantage of both. The LEO guys are definitely going to have a big advantage on latency, but it’s not yet clear if they’re going to have the same advantage on cost.”
Panasonic, like Global Eagle, leases capacity and does not own any satellites, which Hill says gives it more flexibility than IFC providers such as ViaSat and Inmarsat, which have invested heavily in their own GEO satellites.
Inmarsat remains focused on GEOs but is keeping “a close eye on new technologies” and does not rule anything out, says Frederik Van Essen, senior vice president of the company’s aviation division.
“While new constellations struggle to get off the ground, Inmarsat already has next-gen satellites on order for delivery from 2019, which will layer onto the existing GX global network while maintaining backwards compatibility for customers,” adds Van Essen.
ViaSat’s feathers appear similarly unruffled by the prospect of future competition from LEO operators. The company’s president and chief operating officer, Rick Baldridge, says he does not view them as competition because the cost of launching and maintaining a LEO constellation will be “twice the cost of ours,” and many of the LEO satellites “will be over areas where there’s no demand.”
ViaSat has begun inflight testing of its new ViaSat-2 satellite, which will be ready for commercial service launch by either American Airlines or El Al by the middle of this year. The Ka-band satellite will expand ViaSat’s coverage beyond the U.S. to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and transatlantic routes between North America and Europe. The company’s third satellite, ViaSat-3, is scheduled to enter service in 2020.
ViaSat announced a significant deal with United Airlines in February, which makes it a direct internet service provider to the U.S. carrier for the first time. Under the agreement, ViaSat will install its inflight entertainment and connectivity system on more than 70 aircraft, which will eventually be able to access all three of ViaSat’s satellites.
Meanwhile, Gogo, which provides both air-to-ground connectivity to U.S.-based carriers and a satellite-based service for international airlines known as 2Ku, has shown an unwillingness to put all its eggs in the GEO satellite basket.
In 2016, the company announced that it had partnered with Intelsat to leverage the first shared LEO/GEO satellite network for inflight connectivity. Gogo said at the time that its 2Ku terminal was designed to be compatible with both Intelsat’s EpicNG HTS platform and OneWeb’s LEO network, noting: “This flexibility ensures a long-term technology solution that provides immediate benefits as well as a path to future network evolutions well into the next decade.”
Blane Boynton, vice president of product and network solutions at Gogo, says the company has an “open systems architecture” and will “continue looking at every piece” of the satellite-based connectivity system to see if there is “some incremental improvement we can bring.” He says that Gogo will soon “solidify our LEO plans.”
Over time, the expectation is that airlines will transition to newer technology as it becomes available and will eventually mix and match the various services accordingly. As Rockwell Collins’ Nordstrom puts it: “There will be a unified network, where people who have both LEO and GEO HTS will bring a unified service to passengers.”
After all, “airlines and passengers don’t care who’s bringing their connectivity—they don’t care if it’s GEO or LEO.” They just want it to work.