Airlines Are Offered Multiple Choices For Inflight Connectivity

A Gogo 2KU antenna uses a symmetrical, phased-array design that has significantly fewer moving parts.
Credit: Gogo

Decisions on which satellite-based inflight connectivity (IFC) technology and providers to use are becoming more complex for airlines.

Not only do carriers still face the Ku-versus-Ka-band dilemma, their choice now is between installing a system based on geostationary (GEO) satellite technology available today, or taking a chance and waiting several years until new constellations of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites are ready to provide airborne Wi-Fi services.

The good news is that regardless of what they decide, equipment and maintenance costs are likely to come down as standardization takes hold and plug-and-play components become more commonplace.

  • Seamless Air Alliance seeks easy passenger connectivity
  • Standardized Components eyed to help lower costs

A growing number of satellite companies, IFC providers, airlines and equipment manufacturers have joined the Seamless Air Alliance (SAA) in its quest to enable passengers to connect to the internet on their personal devices as easily in the air as on the ground. Part of that quest involves finding a way of standardizing components, which the alliance believes will result in greater interchangeability and lower installation and maintenance costs.

“There is a huge benefit of standardizing this equipment for airlines,” says SAA CEO Jack Mandala. “To begin with, there is an industry-level economy of scale that comes from standardization to reduce equipment costs. Next, standards reduce the cost of spare-parts programs and the overhead of training maintenance staff on the operation and repair of disparate systems.”

The alliance’s “ultimate goal,” says Mandala, is to make every component in the system interchangeable and allow for true plug and play of equipment.

UK satellite company Inmarsat joined the SAA because “it was the right thing to do to make sure we’re part of shaping what the industry looks like” going forward, says Kurt Weidemeyer, vice president for strategy and business development at Inmarsat Aviation. On modularity, Weidemeyer says it “drops the price for everyone if everyone is working to the same standard.”

Oneweb plans to offer a Ku-band inflight broadband service through a constellation of 650 LEO satellites beginning in the first half of 2022. Credit: OneWeb

Inmarsat, which provides Ka-band inflight broadband through its GX Aviation system and a hybrid air-to-ground and satellite-based system known as the European Aviation Network, announced plans in 2019 to launch a number of additional GEO satellites and GX payloads to support its Global Xpress network.

The launch of Inmarsat’s GX7, 8 and 9 satellites, manufactuerd by Airbus Defense and Space, in the first half of 2023, together with GX payloads (GX10A and 10B) on two additional satellites operated by Space Norway and placed into highly elliptical orbits to enable coverage across the Arctic, means Inmarsat’s IFC offering will be “future-proofed for the next two decades,” says Weidemeyer.

His suggestion to airlines weighing satellite-based IFC options is to ask two questions: 

ν Who has control of the network and can offer a global, end-to-end solution? 

ν Are they building for the future and ensuring equipment installed today will work with evolving satellite technology?

“Airlines want [IFC to do] what it says on the tin, and they want to know if it’s going to last a long time. With our network, whatever you put on [the aircraft] today will work for the next decade-plus,” says Weidemeyer.

Inmarsat’s decision to invest in payloads that add Arctic coverage to its GX network suggests connectivity over the North Pole is becoming an important factor for airlines when mulling IFC options. Indeed, Emirates said in July the addition of two elliptical-orbit satellites by Inmarsat means passengers on its U.S.-bound flights, which often travel over the polar region, would no longer “find themselves without connectivity for up to 4 hr.”

Newcomer OneWeb, which plans to offer a Ku-band inflight broadband service through a constellation of 650 LEO satellites beginning in the first half of 2022, will provide “polar coverage from day one,” says Ben Griffin, the startup’s commercial aviation vice president.

OneWeb is pushing full global coverage and low latency as its key selling points to airlines, and it is hoping this will convince them to bet on an unproven network.

Latency—the amount of time it takes to send and receive data to and from a satellite—is “under 100 millisec.” with LEOs, versus 700-800 millisec. with GEOs, says Griffin.

“Four or five years ago, it was all about Ku versus Ka, and airlines were being educated in things they didn’t want to be educated in,” he notes. To avoid further confusion when presenting its “step-change” LEO solution, OneWeb prefers to “leave the science to one side” and talk instead about what the technology can deliver.

OneWeb is a founding member of the SAA and is keen to see a greater degree of modularity across IFC components.

“There’s a whole raft of IFC options out there for selection,” says Griffin, adding that “standardization of equipment is fairly key.”

IFC provider Gogo is another proponent of standardization. “The goal is to standardize form, fit and electrical interfaces of [line replaceable units] intended for line-fit installation in commercial aircraft,” says John Wade, president of the company’s commercial aviation division. “Modular systems work well, provided the candidate airframe can partition functions while allowing systems to interact effectively.” 

But Viasat, which is building a global Ka-band GEO network that will culminate in the launch of a third satellite constellation—ViaSat-3, due to be fully operational by the second half of 2022—appears unconvinced of the merits of joining the SAA, says Don Buchman, vice president for commercial mobility.

Viasat plans to offer a hybrid Ku/Ka antenna to widebody aircraft operators that do not want to wait another three years for its Ka-band service to become global. Buchman says he expects the hybrid service to launch “within a quarter or two,” with an “announceable customer.” 

Another choice facing airlines is whether to opt for a connectivity provider that owns and operates the satellites, such as Inmarsat or Viasat, or one that leases satellite capacity and is more technology-agnostic.

Gogo falls into the latter camp, and Wade explains why: “By leasing satellite capacity, Gogo can quickly leverage the advances in satellite technology once mature enough for commercial use. Our open satellite ecosystem allows us to add capacity on demand, strengthen our network and maintain redundancy. Being locked into a closed system can leave airlines tied to older and more expensive satellites for many years, even as new ones are launched.” 

Kerry Reals

Kerry Reals is a UK-based aviation journalist with 15 years’ experience covering all aspects of the airline and aerospace sector for a variety of industry publications. She is a freelance contributor to Aviation Week & Space Technology, Aviation Daily and Air Transport World, focusing on the European airline industry, with an emphasis on how the sector is working to improve sustainability and reduce its carbon footprint.