Satellite IFC More About Future Than Finding the Right Band

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | March 8, 2016
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Four of the world's biggest aircraft In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) and aviation satellite service and hardware providers gathered at the SATELLITE 2016 Conference & Exhibition to discuss the continued evolution of the overall ecosystem for the connected aircraft. While executives from Inmarsat, Gogo, ViaSat, Panasonic Avionics, and Hughes have different views on ideal satellite bands and airline business models, among other things, all of the major players are working to expand bandwidth, capacity and throughput to create a true broadband experience for aviation, that rivals what the average Internet user has become accustomed to on the ground.
Concept of satellite-based in-flight connectivity flight operations. Photo: Gogo.
Starting off the discussion, Leo Mondale, president of Inmarsat's aviation division, addressed the problem associated with the claims that companies such as Inmarsat, Gogo, ViaSat, and others make in terms of the speeds that their satellite and Air-to-Ground (ATG) networks promise to deliver to airlines and their passengers. ViaSat's Fly-Fi service currently operating onboard JetBlue's Airbus A320 fleet, for example, claims to provide the highest speeds in the business averaging more than 10 Mbps for usage that includes higher bandwidth applications such as Netflix, YouTube videos, and online streaming services. Gogo similarly has made claims recently that its next-generation 2Ku modem will be capable of delivering 400 Mbps to the aircraft and that the 2Ku service has proven capable of supporting uninterrupted streaming videos on more than 40 devices simultaneously connected on the same aircraft. But whether or not those and other claims actually transfer over to real-world scenarios is something that the industry is still monitoring. 
"The reality is, if users spaced themselves out evenly beam by beam, across a satellite’s coverage area and took turns using the service, then the maximum theoretical throughputs that my colleagues talk about would be relevant,” said Mondale. “But they don’t. This is an aviation panel and I think you all know aviation is airplanes, and airplanes operate in root systems and root systems don’t look like nicely evenly spaced coverage maps at all."
Gogo Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Anand Chari also discussed the company's most recent announcement: a long-term agreement with Intelsat for multi-layered Ku-band capacity on EpicNG satellites. Chari agrees that providing connectivity for the aviation market is difficult, and that’s why Gogo is favoring purchasing capacity going forward that can be distributed to areas with the highest demand from airborne aircraft. 
"If you look at Gogo we have not at all purchased capacity uniformly; it is where the aero demand is concentrated. And if you look at the ATG network, we built most our sites and most sectors where there is more traffic. The demand is anything but uniform," said Chari.
With much of Gogo's focus currently around promoting the open architecture, reliability and speed of its 2Ku system, Chari was also asked to comment on the future viability of the company's original ATG network. As Inmarsat and companies such as SmartSky move forward with future-looking ATG networks, Gogo has focused more on the development of its satellite-based 2Ku network. However, Chari said the reasoning behind that is more about opportunity than actually completely leaving the ATG model behind.
"The first generation ATG is yesterday’s news — absolutely. We are working on nextgen ATG, there are several options. One of the well-known options is the 14 GHz being considered by FCC but we are not waiting for that," said Chari. "We are happy moving forward with 2Ku but we keep an open mind to anything that is going to bring more bandwidth. If nextgen ATG happens … and it’s going to be meaningful, we’ll do that … I don’t think ATG is dead," said Chari. 
According to ViaSat Vice President and General Manager for commercial mobility, Don Buchman, while he does feel that the company's Fly-Fi service on JetBlue is a demonstration of the level of reliability, innovation and proven IFC speed, he believes it's more about managing the overall ecosystem and providing an experience that keeps in mind levels of demand for different times day in different airspace. 
"What type of experience do you want?" said Buchman. "We manage our network to get that experience, we manage all of our customers, all of our residential all of our enterprise, all of our aviation; we know times of day, we know flight routes, and we have the capacity available. We know what the demand is, that’s why we are making big investments in the future. We didn’t think ViaSat 1 was enough when we started, we knew that we needed ViaSat 2 and now we need ViaSat 3." 
Another major issue discussed during the panel was around the concept of future upgradeability for airlines. Gogo recently experienced the downside of the evolution of IFC, when American Airlines filed a lawsuit against the company claiming that the existing Gogo technology on its aircraft was no match for new solutions that had come available on the market after they had equipped with the ATG hardware. That has lead to Gogo favoring an open architecture configuration on its new 2Ku antenna technology, which would allow airlines to evolve the service they deliver to passengers as the connectivity ecosystem continues to evolve and better technologies come into the market.
According to David Bruner, vice president of global communications services at Panasonic Avionics, it is best not to be committed to Ka or Ku band but to focus on backward and forward compatibility.
"There is no frequency we don’t like, you use them for different applications," said Bruner. "The idea of saying ‘hey, by the way, I’m launching a new satellite and I’d like you to change the antennas on 400 aircraft,’ doesn’t go over very well … I think this is a battle that goes on for years as we keep migrating.”

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