OneWeb’s under-development constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) communications satellites will largely eliminate the latency issues and inconsistency associated with today’s geostationary (GEO) satellite-based inflight connectivity services, according to the startup’s founder and executive chairman, Greg Wyler.

Wyler describes the existing satellite-based inflight connectivity experience as a “brand-damaging event” that fails to satisfy passengers’ three fundamental requirements for higher capacity, lower latency and reasonable costs.

One GEO satellite operator, Viasat—which has installed its Ka-band connectivity service on almost 600 aircraft and boasts a backlog of an additional 800—questions Wyler’s assertions, with the company’s president and chief operating officer, Rick Baldridge, telling Aviation Week: “We should have better reliability than a LEO constellation that requires constant replacement of satellites.”

While he concurs that OneWeb “definitely has a latency advantage,” Baldridge says that is “not that big an issue” for airline passengers. He points to “fantastic feedback” from Viasat’s airline customers, and says that connectivity services from the company’s “next generation of satellites are going to be even better. 

“There’s certainly a place for the LEO operators, but we don’t view them as competition,” he says.

Wyler envisions a future of standardization and interoperability that will provide a “seamless” connected inflight experience for passengers, and says GEO satellite operators will eventually “be able to sell their own capacity and mix it with OneWeb’s, and some will be able to sell OneWeb capacity.”

While Viasat “could be a user of [OneWeb’s] LEO network for certain latency-sensitive applications,” Baldridge says, the company is also planning to launch its own medium Earth orbit satellite constellation, which could “fill some [GEO coverage] gaps.”

OneWeb is working with Airbus to build and launch 900 LEO satellites, with the primary aim of providing affordable terrestrial internet access to all.

The satellites’ proximity to the Earth—750 mi. up, as opposed to 22,000 mi. for GEOs—and the sheer number will greatly reduce issues with latency and loss of signal, says Wyler.

“Today, when you [fly] north the tail gets in the way of the antenna so you drop connectivity. There are many issues with inflight connectivity dropping constantly for passengers—this is inherently not the case with OneWeb because we have multiple satellites,” he adds.

Airlines will be able to start using the system in 2020, says Wyler, but the ease of their transition to OneWeb’s satellites will depend on the hardware installed on their aircraft. Gogo’s 2-Ku antenna, for instance, will be “very easy to upgrade,” while some other systems “simply will not” be OneWeb-compatible.

“Today’s systems are very bespoke. This is why we’ve joined with others into the Seamless Air Alliance, and you’ll see announcements on this in the near future,” says Wyler.

OneWeb announced in February that it had joined forces with Airbus, Delta Air Lines, Sprint and Bharti Airtel to create an alliance which, they say, will enable mobile operators to extend their 5G services into aircraft cabins and provide passengers with a “frictionless” inflight connectivity experience.

“Customers should get on an airplane and their cellphone should automatically connect . . . their laptop, watch and tablet—all these things should function without any log in,” says Wyler.

Meanwhile, Rockwell Collins—which in 2015 signed a memorandum of understanding with OneWeb to be the exclusive developer and provider of satellite communication terminals for its network—remains confident it will bring the under-development terminals to market.

However, the aerospace company admits that it may no longer be the only provider, as originally envisioned.

“I don’t think there will be an exclusive [terminal] provider. Eventually someone is always going to come along with a better mousetrap—it could be us, I hope it’s us, but it could be someone else. They [OneWeb] are going to constantly look at and talk with other people, and we are fine with that,” says Richard Nordstrom, senior director of strategic marketing for Rockwell Collins’ Information Management Services-Commercial Aviation & Network Services division.

“We’ve got pieces operating, we’ve passed the DO-160 tests, and we are confident in bringing it to the marketplace with OneWeb,” he adds, dismissing as “hype” some of the antenna technology claims made by potential rivals. “We are constantly aware of what our competitors are doing. Many are new and untested in the aviation market, and are unfamiliar with the strict and difficult challenges that come with operating on aircraft.”

The terminal Rockwell Collins is developing features an electronically steered array antenna, which Nordstrom says “will work well” with the requirements of the OneWeb constellation. Mechanically steered antennas “can’t link up with a satellite every 3-4 min.,” he explains.

OneWeb’s Wyler says Rockwell Collins is “building a fantastic terminal” with a low profile that will reduce drag. However, he adds, “others are making terminals that will be compatible.”

ThinKom Solutions, for instance, is developing an antenna system which it says will be “fully compatible with the new low-orbit Ka-band satellite networks expected to proliferate in the next few years, as well as high-throughput GEO satellites.”

OneWeb’s satellites will operate in the Ku band, but rival Telesat is building its own constellation of Ka-band LEO satellites. However, Wyler does not discount the possibility of including Ka-band in the future.