Better IFEC Choices Are Also Tough Choices

Satellite capacity and antennas are rapidly improving--but caveat emptor.

For airlines thinking about installing or upgrading inflight entertainment and connectivity systems, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the options are getting much better. The bad news is that future improvements may be so complicated and uncertain in details or timing that it is easy to make a wrong or at least less-favorable choice. And that could require a switch--with attendant costs for equipment, three to five days of downtime and perhaps contract penalties--in the future.

According to participants in the recent Satellite 2019 show in Washington, better choices are coming in several areas. New, very large capacity geosynchronous earth-orbit (GEO) satellites with terabits per second of data capacity are coming in the 2020s that will expand capacity and cut per-bit costs. These new GEOs will also be able to switch capacity among different locations to meet changing demand patterns.

Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites for Ku and Ka bands are probably but not certainly coming soon, promising lower latency, that is delays between action and response, and better coverage of polar routes. New electronically steered antennas (ESAs) are on the horizon, offering less drag and weight and the ability to handle the quick switches required by LEOs.

Gogo still leads with more than 3,000 commercial aircraft connected, and Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Cobin expects to still be the industry leader five years from now. Gogo’s new 2Ku solution uses a Thinkom antenna that is low profile and can switch to LEOs if and when these become available. Gogo uses multiple satellite constellations for resiliency. Its Thinkom antenna rotates flat panels, is highly efficient and actually reduces drag on Airbus A320s and only causes 5 pounds of drag on Boeing 737s, according to Sales VP Greg Otto.

Global Eagle has more than 1,000 airliners connected, including all of Southwest Airlines’ fleet, 113 Norwegian Air Shuttle aircraft and a growing count of Air France’s Airbus A320s. President Per Norden emphasizes Global’s tight focus on narrowbodies and its massive media content libraries.

Viasat has been the fastest growing connectivity provider in recent years, adding Jetblue Airways, Qantas, a growing count of American Airlines narrowbodies, SAS, El Al, Icelandic and Finnair to its customer count, notes David Ryan president of Viasat's space and commercial networks. Ryan expects Viasat to continue growing rapidly as its new Terabit-per-second satellites go into service over the next two years and the company continues to provide end-to-end, vertically integrated connections.

Panasonic and Thales are also active in the connectivity market. All these connectivity providers are constantly trying to sort out and choose the right technologies.

On the antenna side, Phasor’s ESA is being assisted by Gogo for possible deployment on narrowbody or regional jets. Phasor engineer Glen Kirkpatrick expects it will be available for aircraft in about 18 months.

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