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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Inmarsat CEO Sees Big Market for Airline Connectivity

Mark Holmes

Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce
Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce says he is confident the company can make a strong impact in all areas of the in-flight connectivity business, including cabin and cockpit connectivity, particularly with the launch of its Ka-band Global Xpress satellites next year.

Pearce said he sees Ku-band as “an interim technology” for the commercial connectivity market, saying it will be quickly overtaken by the high data speeds and high bandwidths predicted for Global Xpress. “Ku-band is positioning itself today for these higher throughput services, but we see Ku-band as an interim technology. It will quickly be overbuilt by Global Xpress which will offer much faster data speeds and exponential capacity at a much lower cost per bit," Pearce told In-Flight Connectivity Insider. "A major problem with the in-flight connectivity opportunity, is that it can be very hard to close the business case. The avionics are very expensive and the capacity needed to stand up the business plan in space segment terms is significant ... It is difficult in Ku to find the capacity on a global basis at a price which makes a return on investment for the owner. We believe with Global Xpress and Ka-band, the cost per bit closes the business case.”

The company, which currently generates around 70 percent of its business from government aviation, is seeing strong opportunities in the government market for this service as well. “We do see the government aviation customer moving into Global Xpress quickly once it is launched. It is an exponential capacity increase for them, and they really do care about the unique data speeds that we can sustain across a global footprint. The government customer will be a cornerstone, anchor tenant for Global Xpress. With our combination of commercial and military Ka-band, we will be able to serve everything from relatively small government aircraft, all the way up to super-charged unmanned aerial systems, almost all of which are on the move from Ku to Ka over the next few years.”

Inmarsat and its partners have announced a series of partnership deals this year for the Global Xpress network. Honeywell signed a $2.8 billion agreement with Inmarsat to provide global in-flight connectivity services for Global Xpress; OnAir has signed on as the distributor of the connectivity services and Thales is working with Honeywell to integrate the Honeywell-developed GX Aviation Ka-band satcom avionics and antenna systems, with Thales cabin network solutions. 

The commercial airline market, particularly passenger connectivity, is a “potentially huge” market for the company, Pearce admits. “We have very good market share there today. We have more than 250 aircraft installed with SwiftBroadband across more than 25 different airlines and have more than 1,000 aircraft in backlog waiting to be installed."

However, the market is pretty big right now, and whether you are in the Ku camp or the Ka camp, it seems there is plenty of room for everyone. “Panasonic is selling what is there in the market today and quite rationally. Because of their commitment to Ku-band, they are partnering with Intelsat and others to sell Ku-band. But, we believe in the end, when the airlines are making the decision on what capacity they will buy, they will look at the cost of the capacity. We will work with credible industry partners to bring Global Xpress to the commercial air transport market ... There is plenty of room for Inmarsat, Intelsat, Panasonic and others to be successful. The market is big enough for us all.”

Tim Farrar, President, TMF Associates, says Inmarsat has its work cut out here. “The biggest change we’ve seen is that airlines are deciding on their connectivity strategy now, rather than taking a wait-and-see approach. They are also taking Ku-band very seriously, not least because Intelsat’s planned EpicNG satellites promise to reduce the price of Ku-band capacity to the same level as Inmarsat’s Global Xpress. Panasonic has done a lot to make this shift happen and has gained a very large number of orders as a result – now we have to see if they can deliver on their promises.”

Pearce does not rule out Inmarsat working with Panasonic going forward. “Just because someone is out there selling Ku-band, C-band or something else today, does not mean they would not be very happy to sell Global Xpress when it arrives next year. The VSAT reseller industry is not our enemy. They are selling what is available to customers today. Many of the VSAT re-sellers have done a fantastic job of innovation in recent years in creating new businesses out of nothing. The maritime market is a classic example of that. By bringing Global Xpress to market, we intend to be primarily a wholesaler and to bring something tremendously exciting for incumbents to continue to grow their businesses and serve their customers better. We want to work with these companies.”

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