Could High Throughput Satellites be the Future of IFC?

By Juliet Van Wagenen | March 4, 2016
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[Avionics Today 03-04-2016] New High Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems have taken aim at the In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) market, promising to deliver more bandwidth and wider “pipes” to airborne aircraft. HTS capacity is being brought to the forefront of the commercial aircraft connectivity realm as two major IFC providers — Gogo and Panasonic Avionics — struck huge capacity deals with satellite operator SES last week for access to bandwidth on the company’s upcoming SES 14 and SES 15 satellites, set for launch in 2017. The contracts follow a similar deal SES struck with other IFC giant Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE) in October for capacity on the two satellites that aim to enhance connectivity over the Americas and enable faster, more reliable Internet for passengers and operators alike.

Photo: Avascent
Photo: Avascent

“With HTS capacity, we have designed our satellites specifically for enterprise and mobility applications. We have modeled the traffic patterns as air traffic shifts throughout the day, so that when we designed the satellites we had the capability to better support the fleet as it goes from one geography to another geography,” Elias Zaccack, SES’s senior vice president of commercial operations of the Americas region, and head of SES’s global mobility solutions, told Avionics Magazine. “We know where the traffic is going to be most dense: around major hubs like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and other hubs for major airlines. We placed huge amounts of capacity and large amounts of frequency re-use over these areas to compensate for that congestion.”

The company is scheduled to launch seven new satellites by the end of next year, three of which are Ku-band HTS satellites — SES 12, SES 14 and SES 15 — that promise to infuse huge amounts of throughput into the mobility and enterprise markets. HTS satellites SES 14 and 15 will offer aircraft spot and wide-beam coverage over the Americas, the Caribbean, North Atlantic, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Atlantic Ocean Region, Pacific Ocean Region, Latin America North America and Central America.

While the enhanced connectivity will deliver a more robust experience for passengers on aircraft in these regions, it can open doors for enhanced aircraft operations as well.

“This technology could be used to widen the connectivity pipe and enable black box streaming or even a video recording of what is happening on the plane that can be transmitted in real time and stored on the ground,” noted Zaccack.

SES has invested $1.2 billion in HTS satellites; an investment that Zaccack says will likely accelerate further growth as large IFC providers contract for capacity, validating the company’s HTS strategy.

“HTS will likely form the basis for future IFC systems,” Andrew Penn, a consultant at the Avascent Group, told Avionics Magazine. “Additionally, the improved economics of HTS should enable lower prices for consumers, and increase adoption of free, and ‘freemium’ business models.”

Penn points out that the SES contracts are only the most recent in a series of HTS capacity leases that have taken hold over the last few years. “In fact, Panasonic was the first customer to book capacity on Intelsat’s Epic constellation back in July of 2012 and is also the anchor customer for the HTS payloads on Eutelsat’s 172b and Telesat’s Telstar 12 Vantage,” notes Penn.

He looks to ViaSat’s successful HTS deployment in North America, which has put pressure on traditional satellite and Air-to-Ground (ATG) IFC providers. ViaSat satellites currently provide connectivity to airlines such as JetBlue, Virgin America and United Airlines, three companies that American Airlines cited as having more reliable connectivity than that currently available from IFC provider Gogo in its recently withdrawn lawsuit against the company.

“The recent legal dispute between American Airlines and Gogo, which cited ViaSat as a superior product is further proof that quality of service matters not only to passengers, but the airlines as well. It used to be that offering in-flight Wi-Fi was enough to differentiate an airline. IFC — particularly in North America — is becoming commonplace, and quality of service is becoming the defining feature,” said Penn.

Quality could become an issue, not only for U.S. airlines, which are currently 50 percent equipped for IFC, but for those in the rest of the world, which currently has only about 7 percent equipage, as carriers outside of the U.S. increasingly look to offer Internet.

“I would expect further capacity deals in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions as the big three Middle East carriers expand and adopt IFC across their fleets. Similarly, the opening of the Chinese IFC market promises substantial growth — and with it, the need for additional HTS capacity,” said Penn.

SES has taken aim at the Asia-Pacific IFC market with the launch of its SES 12 HTS satellite planned for 2017, which will provide HTS coverage from the Mediterranean to Japan, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.

While Penn notes that the growing success of Ka players, such as Inmarsat, and IFC consolidation could curb the number of forthcoming HTS capacity leases going forward as competition to deliver the most bandwidth lessens, he does believe that the Ku HTS market is strong. SES’ Zaccack is also confident that the growing need for aircraft connectivity will sustain the market for the next five years.

“There are 5,000 aircraft connected globally today. There are 30,000 commercial aircraft that need to be connected by 2022, and when you add business jets on top of that, you can see we are in the very early stages of in-flight connectivity. We recognize that we are going to need a lot of capacity, a lot of throughput out there over time,” said Zaccack.

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