“Get Connected” has tested Inmarsat’s Ka-band GX inflight connectivity solution over Germany aboard a Lufthansa Airbus A319 aircraft, with the system delivering up to 14.2Mbps to the passenger.
The test took place on a scheduled Lufthansa flight from Munich to Hamburg at the invitation of both Lufthansa and Inmarsat.
To say this test flight had been a long time coming is an understatement! I first started writing about Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) inflight connectivity system about eight years ago, before the first satellite had even been built by Boeing in California.
And I was lucky to be given the opportunity to see one of the I-5 satellites being built at El Segundo near Los Angeles back in September 2013.
Now, with three satellites in orbit, and Honeywell’s JetWave hardware being installed, it was time to see just how the system performs.
Lufthansa’s GX connectivity is offered under its FlyNet brand. The product launch in the first quarter is initially available on 10 Airbus aircraft from the A319/320 family – five with Lufthansa and five with Austrian Airlines.
A total of around 50 Lufthansa family aircraft have been equipped with FlyNet so far and the bulk are currently awaiting full service switch on. Lufthansa is also busy equipping the rest of its small Airbus fleet, with three production lines working flat out.
So how do you use FlyNet and how does it work?
Once you board the aircraft a HotSpot symbol in the cabin shows you if the FlyNet service is installed on your flight.
The system is actually powered by Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect inflight Wi-Fi solution.
As soon as the aircraft reaches 10,000 feet (we were up and running after about nine minutes from brakes off), and if you have switched on the Wi-Fi function on your Wi-Fi-enabled device, the Lufthansa FlyNet portal opens up in your browser and you can log into the HotSpot.
Passengers are currently being offered free internet use during this test phase, but once fully launched the costs per flight will be:
- FlyNet Message – EUR 3,
- FlyNet Surf – EUR 7, and
- FlyNet Stream – EUR 12
Whilst FlyNet Message only allows the use of messaging services such as email, WhatsApp or iMessage, FlyNet Surf also enables passengers to surf the Internet. With the FlyNet Stream service package, video and audio streaming is also possible.
Lufthansa has blocked the use of VOIP and video conferencing apps, such as FaceTime. This means that you can’t make or receive VOIP-based audio phone calls with the ground either. This was a policy decision by Lufthansa and not a GX limitation.
The packages can be paid for by credit card or via a payment service such as Paypal.
The Wi-Fi based system also gives you free access to traveller information and weather for your destination. No inflight movie content is offered.
So much for the background, but how well did it work?
Firstly, although the headline bandwidth figures are what people always want to hear, they are often misleading. For example, do you know exactly how fast your home or office internet access is at any one time? No, I thought not!
A speed test is a snapshot in time and can be affected by a whole host of factors. Nevertheless, they are a starting point.
What you want is a good internet experience, with no lag, freezing or other disruptions.
During the test flight, I used a Macbook Air to see how FlyNet would stand up to the test. This included watching HD streaming video as well as general web browsing, emails and social media use.
An internet speed-measuring Mac OS app was also used at various points in the flight.
The slowest recorded download speed (to the aircraft) was 1.4Mbps and the fastest seen was 14.2Mbps. The average speed to the aircraft was around 10Mbps. The average speed off the aircraft (uploading files) was around 5Mbps.
Latency was around 600-800ms – this largely reflects the round-trip (at the speed of light) of the Ka-band microwave beam to the geostationary satellite and back to Earth that accounts for around 250-280ms depending on the relative location of the aircraft and the satellite in use.
Web page loading was snappy, as was the reception of email. A 720P HD video was also streamed from YouTube and watched full screen. This played flawlessly for the five minutes it was watched.
There was one point in the flight where the internet connection was lost for around 30 seconds to a minute, but it soon returned. The FlyNet instructions do warn of this, which can be caused by the aircraft manoeuvring at cruising altitude.
How these speeds and experience will scale to use by a full complement of fee-paying passengers and multiple aircraft in a beam we will have to wait and see.
I was struck by the similarities with the speeds seen during the tests and those claimed by Ka-band competitor ViaSat and its Excede service. ViaSat promises 12Mbps to the seat, which was largely comparable with the speeds enjoyed during the FlyNet test.
One observation was that I soon forgot I was at 30,000 feet – the internet experience just felt natural. Oh how we take technology for granted!
The service will go live and “paid for” some time in Q2 2017 and by the end of spring, almost 100 aircraft are scheduled to be equipped with FlyNet.
One by one, the entire Lufthansa A320 fleet is to be equipped with the latest advanced technology by the middle of 2018.
The re-fitting of all 31 aircraft at Austrian Airlines is also planned to be completed before the end of April 2017.
What next for Inmarsat’s GX for Aviation service?
Firstly, a fourth Ka-band Inmarsat satellite for GX will launch shortly and will add in-orbit redundancy. This is widely expected to be placed over the Asia-Pacific area, although that has not been confirmed.
Inmarsat says that it has also live trialled new technology over the GX network that raises its data speeds from 50Mbps to more than 300Mbps and that it has a funded programme to increase those speeds to more than 500Mbps.
Inmarsat has GX for Aviation mandates from a number of well-known airlines, including Lufthansa, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Air New Zealand and Singapore airlines.
It has an active pipeline in excess of 3,000 aircraft, a number of which are in late stage discussion.
Frederik Van Essen, Inmarsat’s SVP Strategy and Business development, Aviation, said that GX and FlyNet are still under test.
“Nevertheless, passengers are seeing a level of service comparable to one they may get on the ground. And with the three I-5 satellites encircling the Earth they can get that same level of service anywhere.
“It should be no different at 35,000 feet over the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean as it is in the skies over Germany,” Van Essen said.
“Get Connected” expects more GX announcements at AIX Hamburg in a few weeks as there seems to have been been a long gestation period for many potential new contracts.
Inmarsat’s GX inflight connectivity uses a steerable, single-panel antenna made by Honeywell and mounted under a protective radome on top of the fuselage.
This hooks up to the other JetWave equipment, such as the MODMAN (modem manager), KRFU (Ka Radio Frequency Unit, frequency converter and amplifier) and KANDU (which steers the antenna).
I like to think if that if the KANDU unit fails it becomes a “NOKANDU” – sorry!
Last summer, Lufthansa received a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for the Airbus fleet A320 from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and successfully concluded all the necessary preparation work. Lufthansa Technik was the first MRO company in Europe to have received the STC from EASA to install a Ka-band antenna on the A320 family, i.e. the A319, A320, and A321 models.
The Honeywell Ka-band MCS-8200 antenna is kept pointing at one of the three current Inmarsat I-5 satellites in geostationary orbit some 35,800 kilometres (22,300 miles) over the equator.
The flight on which FlyNet was tested used the I-5 EMEA satellite over the Indian Ocean. The satellite signals were probably handled by the satellite access station (SAS) in Fucino, Italy. Once landed, the data packets are passed to Deutsche Telekom in Germany and join the Internet. For this reason, all the data speed and latency tests were completed against a server in Germany.
The I-5s (the first of which was launched in late 2013) use much higher frequency than Inmarsat’s earlier I-3 and I-4 satellites. While Inmarsat’s I-4 1.6GHz satellites can currently transmit and receive data at hundreds of kilobits per second, the higher frequency (20-30GHz) Ka-band satellites are able to handle data at up to 50Mbps or so (more than 100 times faster) – for Inmarsat users on the land, at sea and in the air.
The signals from the Lufthansa aircraft were beamed up to the closest I-5 satellite. In the test case, the I-5 F1 EMEA satellite, at 63 degrees East. The other satellites cover the Americas and Asia-Pacific regions.
Signal are sent back to a number of dedicated satellite access stations (SASs) around the globe. These are located at Fucino in Italy (the one we probably used), Nemea in Greece, Paumalu in Hawaii, Winnipeg in Canada, Lino Lakes in Minnesota, USA, and Auckland in New Zealand.
Once on the ground your internet protocol (IP) packets then join the terrestrial networks.
The conclusion, therefore, is that the FlyNet system works and works well. It is sensibly priced on a per flight basis, rather than by time or data consumed and is easy to access.
My thanks to Lufthansa and Inmarsat for the test flight.