Over the next few years, more airlines will be looking to upgrade their satcom systems to bring greater operational efficiency while enhancing the passenger experience.
Infight-connectivity and entertainment (IFEC) — long the driver for U.S. airlines to make these upgrades — is poised to be widely deployed in Europe and other markets for the first time. With the reality of continuous broadband available throughout a flight, global airlines that have not widely embraced IFEC are poised to do so, while flight planning departments continue to build business cases for bringing dedicated satcom into the cockpit.
Technology advances at the system and antenna levels have birthed a new wave of excitement for what will be possible for airlines in the coming years. To many industry insiders, broadband’s potential for aviation is at the beginning.
“The business model for airlines has been led by the passenger in the back of the cabin, but now that Wi-Fi is available, the front of the cabin and the operational side of the house are starting to understand the value and the use,” said Don Buchman, VP and general manager of Viasat’s commercial aviation business. “There’s going to be a lot of demand for systems with the highest capacity and the lowest overall cost because airlines are going to use the capacity to drive cost savings.”
Cabin connectivity remains a big driver, especially in the U.S. “A lot of customers in North America are on their second buy, while most of the rest of the world are first-time adopters of in-flight connectivity systems,” Buchman added.
A ‘Booming Market’
“It’s a tremendously booming market,” said Frederik van Essen, SVP of strategy and business development at Inmarsat Aviation. “The expectation in the future is that aircraft will be delivered with in-flight connectivity line fitted from manufacturers, like trends in the automotive industry where manufacturers just include connectivity with your car.”
Inmarsat’s broadband system, Global Xpress, has planned upgrades that will increase its bandwidth on each aircraft from 50 mbps to 330, noted van Essen. Airline customers making a purchase decision “are not making upgrades specifically for right now; they are looking for partners who will continue to innovate and will keep their fleets at a high-performance level,” he said.
Inmarsat’s Sky High Economics Report predicts that broadband in the sky will be a $130 billion market by 2035. The study, carried out by the London School of Economics and Political Science, also predicts that ancillary revenues for airlines will come from selling connectivity to passengers as well as from e-commerce and destination shopping, advertising and premium content. Today only 53% of an estimated 5,000 airlines worldwide offer in-flight broadband.
Inmarsat is looking to make in-flight connectivity attractive for European airlines with the launch of the European Aviation Network, an integrated satellite and 4G network designed to provide continuous connectivity to airlines flying on the European continent.
“By delivering on a continuous basis bandwidth to the aircraft, especially in hot-spot areas, we can respond to increasing market demand by simply scaling the network. That future proofs an airline’s investment,” explained David Fox, VP of in-flight service and connectivity at Deutsche Telekom, the ground system partner on the European Aviation Network.
Pointing to in-flight connectivity revenues from Inmarsat’s current and planned services, van Essen hopes its aviation in-flight connectivity revenues will topple $1 billion by mid-2020 based on 5,000 aircraft getting connected.
“There’s really been a step up in capabilities for satellite communications on a global level,” said van Essen. “Airlines are definitely looking for speed coupled with more reliability. These new systems can do speeds of about 50 mbps to the aircraft — that’s the new benchmark in the industry.”
United Betting on Satcom
Many airlines, including United Airlines, are looking at satcom as a strategic asset and devoting resources to leverage it to deliver the best return on investment. The company is a user of both Inmarsat Swiftbroadband and Iridium, having recently added Iridium service to the carrier’s 757s to enable coverage over the poles.
“Satcom is extremely important, and it’s going to become more critical as we need to get more data to and off the aircraft,” said Capt. Chuck Stewart, chief technical pilot at Chicago-based United, which operates one of the largest fleets in the world.
For the past two years, he’s led a cross-sector satcom strategy development team that is determining the priorities for satcom upgrades fleet by fleet, looking at criteria such as technology obsolescence, reliability and data costs.
He’s focused on cockpit upgrades only, but emphasizes that United remains committed to in-flight cabin connectivity to enhance the customer experience, with most of the fleet offering Wi-Fi to passengers.
Swiftbroadband Safety’s All-Digital Service
Recently, United has worked to meet the performance-based communications and surveillance (PBCS) requirement that ensures airlines can have reduced separations in capacity bottlenecks along the North Atlantic flight corridor. New technologies and procedures like this would reduce the minimum lateral and longitudinal separation, hence increasing capacity in this airspace by adding tracks spaced by one-half degree of latitude within the core tracks.
United has trialed new Swiftbroadband Safety, which upgrades Inmarsat’s classic aero customers to an all-digital system, providing more secure, faster connections in the cockpit.
“Because SB Safety is completely digital, it allows you to use all the functionality you would have from an internet connection, however, it’s fully secure,” explained Inmarsat’s van Essen. For example, Honeywell’s Connected Weather Radar solution takes data from the radar sensor on the nose of the aircraft to the ground and combines it with information from other aircraft flying in the vicinity and on the ground to give pilots a 3-D picture of weather for a whole section of the sky.
United currently is trialing the system on three 767-300s, and preliminary latency data is “very good,” said Stewart. “We will not have any problems meeting PBCS requirements, and we’ll be able to add electronic flight bag (EFB) applications.”
Two new EFB applications the airline is exploring include those that optimize routes and provide more robust real-time turbulence predictions while in flight. Both applications may require a better satellite system “depending on how much data is needed and how fast we need to get it to the airplane,” Stewart said.
Another top priority is to upgrade those aircraft from high-frequency systems to satcom that currently operate routes to Hawaii. Stewart said United can still meet performance and operational requirements with older satellite systems, but welcomes the higher speeds and reliability enabled by new systems are welcome.
Mark Lebovitz, president of Texas-based L2 Aviation, a flight deck technology integrator, sees similar trends among his aviation clients, including wanting to replace their high-frequency systems with satcom.
“With satcom, you’re able to meet faster communication and surveillance performance requirements allowing controllers to place aircraft closer and closer. If aircraft systems can consistently meet those requirements, you will receive better routes and tracks and you’re able to navigate to your destination with less fuel requirements,” he said.
Lebovitz’s customers also are major users of Inmarsat Swiftbroadband, though he said many also are excited about Iridium NEXT. “When Iridium NEXT is fully launched, we believe our Iridium Block 1 customers will upgrade and be able to get the safety and supporting information they need in the flight deck at much higher speeds. We definitely see a lot of interest once the new IP-based network is fully operational.”
Iridium’s next-generation network is expected to fully roll out in 2018, with 66 active satellites, nine in-orbit spares and six ground spares, which will provide secure data and voice services and pole-to-pole coverage.
According to the latest available updates from Iridium, to date, 40 satellites have been deployed and 35 more are set to launch, with the next launch scheduled for March 18. Iridium Certus is the service that will provide the connectivity through Iridium NEXT.
“If Iridium NEXT comes out and it proves out to be faster, cheaper and as good as Swiftbroadband, then we have an alternative to think about,” said Stewart. “But until that happens, Swiftbroadband is proving to be quite good, and in the short term, is our sub-polar satellite system of choice.”
Viasat Expands Coverage
Viasat sees aviation as a huge market as well, with its ViaSat-2 satellite getting ready to go into service. The latest constellation adds greater capacity and coverage over North America, including the in-demand North Atlantic routes. Aviation is the company’s second-largest services market in the U.S., behind residential internet services.
Aviation customers are buying from providers who offer “that experience of capacity,” said Viasat’s Buchman. “Five years ago, it was a minor decision: ‘Am I buying connectivity or not?’ There was little thought about what the quality of the connectivity was — they just assumed it wasn’t very good. Now they want quality and expansion; they want to know the technology isn’t going to die out in one or two years as terrestrial demand grows.”
ViaSat-2 adds to the company’s current North American constellation of three satellites, which include ViaSat-1, WildBlue-1 and Anik F2. It also has a high-capacity satellite over Europe through its joint venture with satellite operator Eutelsat and provided the ground network for NBN’s Ka-band high-capacity network in Australia. The company has publicly announced its next-generation constellation, ViaSat-3, which will support “1,000 gigabits, or a terabit of capacity” and require only three satellites to provide global coverage. The first of the three satellites is expected to come online in 2020, Buchman said.
Antenna Advancements Key to Future Constellation Interoperability
Some experts point to inroads in antenna capabilities as a huge enabler of future capabilities.
Dave Helgott, CEO of Phasor, a nextgen electronically steered antenna provider, said aviation customers will need to better access technologies to take advantage of new HTS satellites, especially LEO systems coming online.
“That’s what we do — we’re an electronically steered antenna technology,” he said. “One aperture on an aircraft can produce two separate beams. So, I can look at two satellites from one antenna at the same time.”
That becomes important with the next wave of broadband constellations being planned for low-Earth orbit from firms like OneWeb, LeoSat and Telesat. As airlines face technology obsolescence issues, they may want an antenna that can talk to a GEO and a LEO and vice versa, and Helgott contends his antenna is well positioned to address that requirement.
One year away from rollout, Phasor’s technology will be marketed through in-flight service providers such as Gogo, but the antenna is getting the attention of in-flight connectivity providers and airlines, which are already looking at upgrade plans two and three years out.
“Gilat, Rockwell Collins and Ball Aerospace are all working on phased array antennas as well, but we are pretty confident of our head start and differentiation in that space,” Helfgott said.
Viasat’s Buchman said while his company develops its own high-performance antennas, its biggest investment is in the satellites themselves “because that’s what delivers the capacity.” He added that Viasat’s system was designed around delivering internet to people, no matter where they are. “The consumer on the ground also flies and should have the same experience,” he said.
One fact everyone agrees on — everything is evolving, with newer, better, faster technology coming to market, which some say could leave airlines struggling to decide on the best satcom strategy.
“There’s too much choice, too much going on — the risk is paralysis,” said Inmarsat’s van Essen. “What we are trying to ensure with our customers is we will always offer a smooth upgrade path. That’s why we are making use of standards wherever possible.”
Stewart said he meets regularly with industry partners, including Iridium, Inmarsat, Cobham and Rockwell Collins, to evaluate new satcom capabilities against United’s operational requirements. His message to the industry, “Keep listening to the operators for their desires and wants, and make sure you go through operational scenarios to ensure that the equipment you are building will meet known needs in the future.”
Europe Hopes to Accelerate IFC Adoption
Soon European passengers will enjoy seamless and con- tinuous internet access, even on flights under an hour.
Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom leaders hope this will happen with the launch of the European Aviation Network (EAN), their collaborative service recognized as the world’s first integrated satellite and 4G network for airline passenger connectivity.
“Europe has the highest flight density in the world, but the number of connected short- and medium-haul aircraft are still few and far between. Here is a market that is waiting to be addressed with a high-performance solution,” said Deutsche Telekom’s David Fox.
He contends that the EAN combines the best of both worlds, with a ground network and a satellite system.
Both the satellite and ground systems are “always on,” explained Fox, with logic on both systems that decides the most optimum way to send data either through the satellite or the 300-ground terminal network.
Inmarsat’s Frederik van said the EAN will exclusively serve aircraft flying in the 28 countries of the European Union and Switzerland and Norway, delivering continuous high-speed bandwidth to the aircraft and for the first time and giving air- lines confidence that they can deliver a good user experience over the lifetime of the installation.
Fox said the system has plenty of broadband capacity, but if more is needed, adding additional sectors to a ground station could scale the network.
EAN’s first customer, International Airlines Group (IAG), parent company of British Airways and Iberia, will be the first to offer this solution to passengers.
“We are taking the user experience of what they are used to in their home environment to the aircraft,” said Fox, re- calling a perfect Facetime call he received from a Deutsche Telekom flight engineer during a flight test while he was at a trade show.
The German partner intends to use its internet service pro- vider expertise and existing customer relationships to help airline passengers sign on quickly and seamlessly to the EAN.
“In Europe we have the highest flight density — there is over 20,000 flights every day — but the average flight dura- tion is only 70 or 80 minutes. So, we need to find a way to bring the customer online as quickly as possible,” said Fox.
One solution would allow airlines to plug into Deutsche Telekom’s roaming hub, which Fox said “instantly opens up an ecosystem of more than 20 million customers who al- ready have an agreement with us or our partners." AVS