Intelsat gears up for next-generation inflight connectivity

Artist's impression of an Intelsat EpicNG satellite.
Artist’s impression of an Intelsat EpicNG satellite.

Intelsat is getting ready for the next quantum leap in inflight internet access with the launch of its EpicNG Intelsat 29e satellite.

The satellite is now scheduled for launch in the early 2016, with entry to full service in quarter two of next year.

James Collett, ‎Director Mobility Services at Intelsat, said the satellite will be lofted aboard an Ariane launcher early in the first quarter, although no firm date is yet known.

“The satellite will cover the Americas, plus important trans-Atlantic routes, from its 310 degree East [50 degrees west] position,” he said, “And hot on its heels will be Intelsat 33e, which is due to launch in the second half of 2016.”

Intelsat-33e will sit at 60 degrees East and cover Europe, Africa and Asia.

“We have four further EpicNG satellites planned for launch between 2016 and 2019,” Collett said. “The combined effect will be to double the capacity of our existing fleet.

“What we are doing is supplying extra capacity for our customers to enable them to innovate and grow their businesses. We are giving airlines headspace to increase their bandwidth.”

EpicNG will feature both wide and spot beams, giving a total capacity of about 25-60Gbps per satellite. This translates to around 200Mbps per spot beam with the new high throughout satellite (HTS) services.

Intelsat EpicNG coverage map.
Click to see larger version.

“This is a leap up from the less than 10Gbps available currently,” Collett said. “The other important aspect of EpicNG is that we are putting the capacity just where it is needed, especially over high-density air traffic routes.

“We are sticking with Ku as it has a lot of momentum in the inflight connectivity market and no hardware upgrades will be needed to take advantage of the higher throughout.”

Collett wouldn’t be drawn on the exact speeds passengers will see on an aircraft as it depends upon a lot of factors, including the contract the airline has with its provider. But other commentators have talked about HTS offering equivalent figures to Inmarsat Ka-band’s GX Aviation offering at up to 50Mbps, or even more.

He did add that the EpicNG platform, which is based on Boeing 702MP hardware and built at El Segundo near Los Angeles, is capable of carrying Ka-band payloads too.

So will we see Intelsat offering Ka-band inflight connectivity at a later date?

“Probably not,” Collett said. “Ka may be offered with some of our other services, such as maritime, but the aeronautical focus is on Ku.

“We’ve designed EpicNG as an open architecture solution so that anyone can develop for it. For example, anyone can design antennas for the system, which is unlikely to happen with a rival service, such as Inmarsat’s Ka-band GX Aviation solution where you are tied to Honeywell for the antennas.”

[Editor’s note: Inmarsat is also working with Kymeta on a flat panel design for GX, but it won’t be available at the time of the service launch].

“We are going to replenish our current fleet continuously and will add EpicNG platforms where we feel there is a need,” Collett added.

“The bandwidth requirement for the aviation industry just goes up and up,” Collett said. “EpicNG will bring a much-improved user experience for many years to come.”

Potential users of EpicNG include Panasonic Avionics, Gogo (with its 2Ku system) and Global Eagle Entertainment.

He added that work is progressing with Phasor on a new flat-panel phased array antenna for the small business jet market.

“We think the small business jet has been under-serviced and this is a great opportunity to do something about that,” he said.

The new Phasor fuselage-mounted antenna is targeted to be ready for 2017.

Intelsat is also working with antenna-innovator Kymeta on a number of applications, although the main focus has been on a maritime product, not aviation.

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