Gogo Pushes New Tech for Aircraft Broadband

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PARIS — Airline broadband connectivity provider Gogo Inc. said it looked at the Ku- and Ka-band product offerings of SES, Intelsat, ViaSat, Hughes, Inmarsat and others before deciding to launch its own proprietary 2Ku product, to be introduced commercially this year.

Chicago-based Gogo has contracted for capacity aboard Intelsat and SES satellites to introduce 2Ku, first on a Gogo-owned Boeing 737 test plane and then commercially later this year.

Gogo said it has more than 500 aircraft in various stages of being fitted with 2Ku antennas. In a June 25 presentations to investors, Gogo managers said that while they wait for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue rules on the allocation of the 14-gigahertz section of spectrum, they are pushing ahead with 2Ku worldwide.

Jon Cobin, Gogo’s executive vice president for global airlines, said the company assumes for now that the FCC auction of the 14-gigahertz spectrum will occur in early 2016. That would substantially increase the amount of spectrum available for air-to-ground communications, but would not address flights outside North America, or flights in North America that spend a part of their time over the ocean.

The growing demand for in-flight broadband — for passenger connectivity, aircraft-health reports and cockpit requirements — means that aircraft spending just 5 percent of their time over water are being equipped for satellite links, Gogo officials said.

Gogo has 2,300 commercial airline aircraft and 2,000 business jets fitted with air-to-ground gear.

Cobin said that Gogo has 51 percent of the current installed aircraft connectivity market, and that since it announced the 2Ku service it has won 74 percent of the competitions it has entered.

By Gogo’s count, its 51 percent market share for connected aircraft, both air-to-ground and satellite combined, compares with 19 percent for Panasonic Avionics, 14 percent for Global Eagle Entertainment, 9 percent for Thales Group and 7 percent for OnAir.

Gogo started its use of air-to-ground links in North America after concluding that the satellite alternatives then were insufficient. With air-to-ground reaching saturation of its limited spectrum and Gogo expanding abroad, the company is now returning to satellites with 2Ku.

Gogo said current Ku-band satellites can offer 20-50 megabits per second to a plane, about the same as Ka-band systems. With 2Ku, that increases to 70-100 megabits per second, said Anand Chari, Gogo’s chief technology officer.

The same 2Ku band antenna system using today’s widebeam Ku-band satellites will work with the coming high-throughput Ku-band satellites, Chari said, although in some cases airlines may need to swap out the modems to function with the newer satellites.

The choice of Ku-band, he said, was made easy by the fact that in any given region several Ku-band satellites are in orbit and have available capacity.

Chari said 2Ku “is going to disrupt global aviation. It’s a true global solution and it can do Internet and TV using the same antenna, and it works both with today’s satellites and the next-generation high-throughput satellites.”

One drawback to the satellite solution is that it takes a plane out of service for about three days to perform the installation, Chari said. That compares with about eight hours for air-to-ground hardware.

Gogo Chief Executive Michael Small said of mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat — Gogo is a reseller of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress Ka-band broadband service — that he is not certain that Inmarsat’s planned S-band air-to-ground (ATG) project in Europe will ever see the light of day.

“There may or may not be a European ATG,” Small said. “We don’t rule it out. It’s entirely possible that they will get it built. We would be entirely open to using that network. It could potentially be useful for certain aircraft. We don’t see it as a factor in our future, but we would be happy to engage in discussions with them.”

Inmarsat has ordered an S-band satellite payload and has a European Commission operating license.

Chari said 2Ku, whose Gogo-developed antennas and modems are the key points of advantage, “will outperform, or at least perform as well as,” the Ka-band aeronautical connectivity offered by ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, California. “And we will have global coverage and offer operational savings for airlines.”

Gogo officials said its their 2Ku antenna’s efficiency in turning a megahertz of spectrum into throughput — they likened it to a high-fuel-mileage car versus a lower-mileage car — that gives it an advantage over the competition. That, plus the fact that the more planes connected, the less each pay for the bandwidth, is what Gogo is counting on to maintain its market share advantage.

Gogo Chief Financial Officer Norman Smagley said 2Ku will cost airlines about one-half what they pay today for Gogo’s Ku-band offering, measured by the annual cost per plane for the same amount of bandwidth — $1.8 million in savings per plane per year using current Ku-band satellites.

“Think about having a 1,000-aircraft fleet with 2Ku,” Smagley said. “That represents $1.8 billion in present-value bandwidth cost savings. That means $1.8 billion more in margin, $1.8 billion more in cash.”

Small said the savings are estimated from Gogo’s current Ku-band service flying with Delta and Japan Airlines today, and laboratory tests of the efficiencies to come with 2Ku.

Smagley denied industry scuttlebutt saying Gogo was offering its Ku-band equipment free of charge to airlines to establish market share. “We are not giving it away free,” Smagley said. “Every airline is paying for the equipment.”

He said equipment cost subsidies nonetheless were embedded in larger-order fleet contracts.

“The best is yet to come,” Smagley said. “We’re going to make a lot of money” on 2Ku.