Panel debates which inflight connectivity model is best

Passenger using a laptop and inflight connectivity on board an aircraft
A passenger using a laptop and inflight connectivity. Image: Emirates.

The age-old question of whether it is better to go with an inflight connectivity provider that operates its own satellites, or whether to choose one that leases capacity as required has come up again.

Two 50-minute panel sessions at the 2017 Apex Expo looked at just this question, with companies on both sides keen to say they were better.

On one hand there are companies like ViaSat and Inmarsat that own their own satellite networks and manage the whole infrastructure.

On the other are providers like Global Eagle, Panasonic Avionics and Gogo that lease capacity from satellite operators like SES and Intelsat as and when they require it.

Both have their pros and cons, but is there a definitive answer?

Despite a panel of nine each putting forward their cases, there still wasn’t a clear winner.

Inmarsat’s new Ka-band GX Aviation service, for example, is served by four satellites that the company designed, launched and now operates.

ViaSat has two operator-owned Ka-band satellites in orbit, with a series of ViaSat-3 satellites in the pipeline. It also has an agreement with Eutelsat for coverage on its KA-SAT bird over Europe.

Gogo’s Anand Chari said one of the problems of operator-owned satellites is redundancy. What if their satellite fails?

“You must also be able to take advantage of developments in the evolution and development of new satellites,” Chari said.

“Having a competitive market for satellite capacity produces a more efficient service.

“Our goal is to connect all aircraft, anywhere in the world. Our 2Ku system works with both wide-beam and HTS spot-beam satellites, plus any future low-earth orbit Ku-band satellites.

“We have more than 1,500 aircraft in our 2Ku backlog with more to come.

“This means we can offer 15Mbps to the passenger with 98% coverage and 98% reliability.”

Inmarsat Aviation’s David Coiley disagreed and said: “If you are dealing direct with a company that has designed its own network, designed with mobility users in mind, you end up with a system that is faster, better and more nimble.

“Dealing direct with the satellite operator is going to be more efficient and faster.

“We also have our new GX5 V-HTS satellite announced for 2019 and two Inmarsat I-6 fully-steerable V-HTS satellites for the 2020+ timeframe.”

On the question of whether a major in-orbit failure could be risky, Coiley said it does have in-orbit redundancy, both with the recent launch of its fourth I-5 GX satellite and with the others on the drawing board.

Greg Montevideo, Panasonic Avionics, said the question is really “can you deliver me a service where I want to go, when and where I want it – and make it affordable”.

“We have been executing a plan to deliver connectivity to the aircraft. At the end of the day you need to be able to deliver it to the passengers, the crew and the cockpit.

“With our partners we’ve been building a global network with spot beams where needed,” Montevideo said.

ViaSat’s Meherwan Polad, said that in 2017 it launched ViaSat-2 with 450 Gbps regional capacity and it will be in service over the next few months.

“The first ViaSat-3 satellite is scheduled for launch in 2019+ and ultimately the constellation will provide 3,575Gbps of capacity globally.

“It is not just about the capacity, but the cost of that capacity. We think owning your own satellites and being able to use them across multiple markets is important.

“Being the satellite provider means there is no mark-up from a middle man too.

“Building satellite networks is just a part of the package. Building the ground structure and the modems is equally important,” Polad said.

Eutelsat’s Jags Burhm said it is third largest satellite operator in the world.

“We offer better, faster bandwidth so that we can bring connectivity to airlines that is cheaper, better and more reliable,” Burhm said.

“We provide capacity to other providers. It is all about relevancy. It doesn’t matter what model you use as long as customers get what they need at the price point they want.”

William Huot-Marchand, Thales InFlyt Experience, added that running your own network is very intensive and expensive.

“Leasing capacity is all about picking the right technologies. By partnering with companies like SES and Hughes you benefit from their expertise,” he said.

At the end of the day airlines want the best option at the best price. It is all about the service level agreement. Airlines want to make sure that the model and solution they choose is sustainable and developing.

All agreed that the satellite industry is changing, with a host of new options coming, including air-to-ground and low-earth and mid-earth orbiting satellites.

And all agreed that in five years time the whole market may look completely different. A straw poll among the panelists also showed that nearly all think there could be consolidation in the industry – with fewer operators overall.

This question is going to run and run.

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