The coming year will see a number of key developments in the satellite-based inflight connectivity sector, as competing providers bring new satellites online and add high-throughput satellite (HTS) capacity to their existing networks in a bid to position themselves as offering the fastest, highest-capacity service to airlines. 

Developments in 2018 will include the entry into service of ViaSat’s second Ka-band satellite, ViaSat-2, the continued addition of HTS capacity to support Panasonic Avionics’ and Gogo’s Ku-band networks and the launch of Thales Group’s new, dedicated Ka-band offering over the Americas. 

Thales is working with SES and Hughes Network Systems to bring to market a new inflight connectivity service to airlines based in North America. It will operate under the FlytLIVE brand. The service will initially use the two satellite companies’ existing networks but will eventually switch to the SES-17 satellite when it becomes operational in late 2020 or early 2021. 

Richard Perrot, vice president of marketing and product policy inflight entertainment and connectivity at Thales, says the idea is to “leapfrog” current satellite-based connectivity systems to bring to airlines “unrivaled throughput” from a satellite dedicated to aviation. Thales plans to use this as a key selling point as it competes with more established players. 

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“We will have a satellite dedicated to aero mobility, whereas existing solutions are serving maritime and ground-based [customers], with the remaining bandwidth dedicated to aerospace,” says Perrot. By using the existing satellite network as a “bridge” to when SES-17 becomes available, Thales will be able to begin offering its new service this year, instead of having to wait until 2021.

“We have a launch customer we’ve been working with for a couple of months,” says Perrot. The undisclosed customer is slated to begin using the new service at an unspecified date this year. 

The switch to SES-17 will be a “seamless experience,” says Perrot, and will not require airlines to make any modifications to their systems. 

Thales’ new North American service will form part of a two-pillar approach to inflight connectivity. The second pillar involves its partnership with Inmarsat, through which it provides customers outside North America with GX Aviation—a Ka-band satellite service powered by Inmarsat’s Global Xpress network. 

Although Thales will offer its own dedicated service for the Americas, in order “to answer a very specific need,” Perrot says the company is “much more into a partnering approach with Inmarsat than competing” when it comes to other regions. 

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Another Ka-band provider with big plans for this year is ViaSat, which the company’s vice president of commercial mobility, Don Buchman, says is “ready to go with the commercial launch” of its second satellite, ViaSat-2. The new satellite will broaden ViaSat’s reach from the U.S. to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, as well as air traffic routes across the Atlantic to Europe. 

While it will enter service for broadband customers on the ground in February, airlines will have to wait until midyear. Buchman says aviation testing of ViaSat-2 will begin in March or April, with full commercial launch expected “a couple of months later.”

He says the market “will have to wait and see” which of ViaSat’s airline customers will be the first to offer ViaSat-2 services on board, but it will be either American Airlines or El Al. Icelandair will follow “toward the end of the summer” with JetBlue Airways coming on stream “toward the end of the year.”

ViaSat’s connectivity service has so far been installed on about 580 aircraft, and it has another 800 aircraft in its backlog. The company has always promoted the high capacity of its satellites as a means of differentiating it from competitors. While ViaSat-1 has a throughput capacity of 160 Gbps, ViaSat-2 will offer in excess of 300 Gbps and ViaSat-3—scheduled to enter service in 2020—will offer 1,000 Gbps, according to ViaSat.

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“There’s a lot of noise, and everyone is claiming they can do what we’ve done, but [competitors’ second- and third-generation satellite networks] do not even have a tenth of the capacity of ViaSat-1,” says Buchman. 

His comment appears to be directed at Panasonic Avionics, which is in the process of transitioning airline customers to what it describes as its “third-generation communications network.” Panasonic is adding HTS capacity to its global Ku-band satellite network and said earlier this month that the extra capacity now covers “all dense mobility traffic areas around the globe.”

More than 1,800 aircraft are equipped with Panasonic’s inflight connectivity service, and the company expects more than 10,000 aircraft to be connected by 2025. 

Gogo is following a similar path to Panasonic as it folds HTS capacity into its 2Ku inflight connectivity service, which is now in use on over 500 aircraft. Blane Boynton, vice president of product and network solutions at Gogo, says the company started adding HTS capacity—which uses multiple spot beams to increase throughput—to its 2Ku service over the North Atlantic last year and will continue to add capacity in other regions as more high-throughput satellites come online. 

“A lot of folks don’t realize that the same spot-beam technology competitors talk about in Ka started being deployed in the Ku band last year,” says Boynton. He adds that the 2Ku antenna “had support for HTS technology right out of the box,” making the transition to HTS capacity seamless.