Historically, provision of wholesale cabin business jet connectivity services for VIP and private aircraft has been dominated by four companies: Gogo, Viasat, Inmarsat and Iridium. Gogo now counts some 6,000 business aircraft on its air-to-ground (ATG) network, while Viasat lays claim to more than 1,100 cumulative shipments of its Ku-band system over the last decade and a rapidly growing number of aircraft connected to its Ka-band network.
On the L-band side, Inmarsat and Iridium account for the bulk of the market and have done for some time. The former has built an enviable base of about 3,500 aircraft that rely on its hugely-successful SwiftBroadband (SBB) service and somewhere in the region of 1,000 using the newer Jet ConneX (JX) Ka-band solution. And with 10,000 aircraft installed with its services today, the latter estimates there’s a 90% chance a business jet will be using its low-earth orbit (LEO) L-band network to power in-flight phone operations.
However, attracted by the higher margins on offer in business aviation compared to the commercial aviation market (and doubtless emboldened too by the rapid recovery of the former from the COVID-19 pandemic), the last few years have seen a clutch of new entrants and solutions emerge. Intelsat, working in concert with Satcom Direct, is close to relaunching its FlexExec service after installs were temporarily suspended following the loss of the Intelsat-29e satellite, while SES and Collins Aerospace have been ramping up installations of their rival Ku-band offering, LuxStream. Iridium, meanwhile, is awaiting the imminent arrival of the first aviation grade terminals for Certus and the recently rebirthed OneWeb is vowing to revolutionise the connectivity market with a high-speed and low-latency solution in the next few years.
Currently, however, most of the focus is on grabbing the attention of the large cabin jet market, as well as the more niche bizliner segment. And this makes sense given the riches on offer across this top end of the market, as well as the fact that today’s bulky Ku- and Ka-band radomes are only really suited to airframes of this size. What’s more, it is by no means uncommon for larger jets to be equipped with multiple connectivity systems. We estimate that there are about 6,100 large cabin jets in operation throughout the world, and another 550 or so bizliners. These numbers are heading up to around 8,200 and 700, respectively, by the end of 2030 and many are still only fitted with narrow-band options so it’s a not insignificant opportunity to be chasing after.
But there’s an even larger opportunity beyond this in the mid- to light jet segments, as well as within turboprops, which combined, amount to about 32,000 aircraft globally. Away from satellite connectivity, SmartSky Networks is poised to make its long-awaited entrance into the ATG race later this year, while Gogo is preparing to launch its new 5G network in 2022. The geographic footprint of their offerings means that both companies have their sights set firmly on the North American market, which accounts for just under two thirds of all business aircraft. And the much less intrusive nature and lower cost of ATG compared with satellite connectivity means that smaller airframes are all valid targets. We estimate that, together, super midsize, midsize, small cabin and very light jets add up to about 10,600 aircraft in North America. Throw into the mix turboprops, and you’re up to circa 19,700 aircraft, many of which currently have no connectivity option at all.
That’s not to say that anything smaller than a large cabin jet in North America will automatically opt for ATG. Indeed, the small form factor of Viasat’s Ka-band hardware has made it a popular option on super-midsize jets in the region. It is also a line-fit option on Embraer’s Legacy 450 midsize jet. These segments are sure to be a target for upcoming LEO constellations like OneWeb and SpaceX and probably even Inmarsat now that it has signalled its intent to embrace multi-orbit constellations in the form of the newly unveiled ORCHESTRA network.
But LEOs and their supporting hardware are still a little way off, especially on smaller aircraft. And this means that there is a huge opportunity for service providers to exploit on mid- to light business aircraft outside of North America. Just over 12,000 aircraft to put a number on it. Europe – home to the world’s second largest fleet of business aviation aircraft – had been set to benefit from ATG technology after Inmarsat announced plans to utilise the European Aviation Network (EAN) for business aviation. Those plans don’t look set to materialise, however, with the regulatory required presence of an S-band antenna complicating to system architecture on smaller jets where fuselage space is at a premium.
Given how suitable the technology is to smaller airframes, one might reasonably ask whether we’ll see new ATG networks spring up outside of North America. As Europe is now effectively a no go, and that traditional thinking has been to suggest ATG technology is only suited to large, contiguous land masses, we might ordinarily have said there were few viable regions where such networks might make sense. China being one, obvious example. But recent developments cast doubt on this assertion and suggest smaller territories could have an important role to play. Indeed, it is estimated that if deployed in just 25 countries/clusters, it would be possible to cover some 80% of the world’s flight routes with ATG technology.
Today, SkyFive is planning to trial the use of its ATG solution for air ambulance, search and rescue, police and other aviation services in New Zealand. And in the United Kingdom, BT Group subsidiary, EE, has signed an agreement with Nokia to build a nationwide 4G LTE ATG network for the emergency services. Nokia also teamed up with Saudi Telecom Company subsidiary, STC Business, to launch a pilot LTE-based ATG network in Saudi Arabia in 2018. Valour Consultancy understands that more information on the next stage of this project will be revealed imminently. It has also been suggested that there could be potential in developing an ATG network in South Korea with the Seoul to Jeju Island route one of the most heavily trafficked in the world, while Indonesia and India would also appear to be viable candidates for ATG.
That said, it is likely to be some time before a serious number of new ATG networks are available. And the flat panel antennas that would make LEO-based connectivity a reality on smaller jets is not likely to reach maturity until at least 2025 and even then, the immediate focus is sure to be the much more lucrative larger jets. So, for the medium-term at least, the light- to mid-size markets outside of North America look likely to be addressed by L-band connectivity. Up until recently, the only feasible option for this portion of the market was Iridium Certus, which promises low-cost, small form factor hardware and a path towards providing up to 1.4 Mbps of bandwidth. Inmarsat’s new ELERA network, however, will use spectrum management capabilities known as “Carrier Aggregation” to deliver speeds of up to 1.7 Mbps, whilst also utilising its own smaller, low-cost user terminals. The two companies therefore look set to go head-to-head in what’s sure to be an intriguing battle over the next few years.