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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Airborne Satcom Market Booming, Panelists Say

By Emily Feliz

In-flight connectivity has undergone a dramatic and rapid evolution in just a few years, with the aircraft morphing from one of the last cell-phone free zones to being airborne Wi-Fi hotspots capable of near broadband speeds.

Those years have been brutal, with several company causalities along the way. And the companies that have remained, or “survived,” have had and must continue to adapt to the ever-changing consumer technology market and the insatiable appetite those devices have for bandwidth.

“A lot has changed since we launched the business two years ago,” said David Bruner, vice president of Global Communications Services at Panasonic Avionics, of Lake Forest, Calif. “Smartphones and smartpads have changed the world. … We have entered a new phase [in in-flight connectivity]. We’re out of infancy and we’ve survived … we’re still alive.”

Bruner, along with executives from ViaSat, OnAir, LiveTV, Inmarsat, ViaSat and Honeywell, discussed the current and future in-flight satcom market at this month’s SATELLITE 2012 conference and exhibition in Washington, D.C.

Panasonic Avionics’ Ku-Band Global Communications Suite provides broadband coverage. Bruner said approximately 1,300 aircraft worldwide have committed to the company’s Ku-Band network at this time. Panasonic will be announcing a new network at this month’s Aircraft Interiors Expo that “allows us to provide global coverage and capacity where you need it.” He declined to give more details of the system.

Going forward, the demand for bandwidth — whether Ku- or the forthcoming Ka-Band, and satellite capacity will only increase as the number of aircraft and number of users increase. OnAir estimated the number of connected aircraft will be 17,000 to 20,000 by 2025.

“You can feel the momentum growing at an exponential pace,” said Mike Moeller, vice president of sales and marketing at LiveTV, a JetBlue Airways subsidiary based in Melbourne, Fla. “We’re chasing our own tails to keep up with bandwidth.”

Ka-Band, which is poised for global coverage in 2014 with the launch of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress system, will “change the way the industry will look at broadband,” Moeller said. JetBlue Airways will begin using Ka-Band spectrum on its aircraft by the end of the year, panelists said. In 2011, ViaSat and JetBlue Airways signed a $30 million agreement to deploy the first Ka-Band commercial aviation broadband network using the ViaSat-1 satellite and Ka-Band airborne terminals and services to JetBlue’s fleet of more than 170 aircraft.

Leo Mondale, managing director of Global Xpress at Inmarsat, said the Global Xpress system will have significantly higher capacity and performance, and will have substantially lower cost per bit than a typical Ku-Band system.

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