Panasonic airlines

LONDON — Panasonic Avionics is evaluating six separate offers from satellite fleet operators willing to build a high-throughput, spot-beam Ku-band satellite to cover Asia-Pacific air routes starting in 2017, a Panasonic official said Dec. 4.

Todd Hill, director of global communications systems product management and capacity at Panasonic Avionics, said all six offers are credible and being reviewed by his company.

Depending on the size of the satellite built, Panasonic would agree to lease between one-third and two-thirds of the total capacity for five or 10 years, Hill said during an interview here at the VSAT Mobility 2013 conference, organized by Informa Telecoms.

Lake Forest, Calif.-based Panasonic is building a global network to provide satellite-based broadband connectivity to aircraft. It is an anchor customer for Intelsat’s Epic high-throughput satellite (HTS) system, whose first satellite is scheduled for launch in 2015. Panasonic has signed a 10-year commitment for Ku-band Epic HTS capacity aboard Intelsat’s IS 29e satellite.

Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat is one of several fleet operators looking to launch HTS capacity over the Asia-Pacific air and maritime routes. Not many satellites currently serve the Asia-Pacific mobile broadband market. Paris-based Eutelsat’s 172A spacecraft at 172 degrees east is an example of one that has been able to capitalize on the growing demand for aeronautical connectivity.

For Panasonic, assuring aeronautical customers seamless coverage as they move between regions is a key goal. The company currently uses 22 beams on 17 non-HTS satellites linked with 11 gateway Earth stations for its service — 1.02 gigahertz of capacity, with some 200 megahertz of additional capacity coming on four more satellite beams, Hill said. He said more than 99 percent of the air routes of the top 50 airlines are covered by the current satellite leases.

Despite its appetite for satellite capacity, Panasonic has no intention of launching its own spacecraft, Hill said. The company also appears to have ruled out, at least for now, the option of purchasing outright a percentage of a new satellite’s payload and will stick with the leasing model.

Panasonic’s satellite-enabled broadband service is currently available on 330 aircraft, with 20-plus aircraft being added each month, including some 70 planes operated by Lufthansa of Germany using hardware Lufthansa originally installed for the Connexion by Boeing project.

Boeing abandoned its broadband-to-aircraft business several years ago and Panasonic is one of several companies that benefited from Boeing’s work with airlines.

Hill said Panasonic has secured operating licenses in 209 of the 210 nations it wants to cover. The last is China, and a license is expected in the next couple of months.

Already Panasonic has established partners in China, including China Telecom’s satellite telecommunications subsidiary, to extend the service into Chinese airspace immediately once the license approval is received.

Hill said Panasonic’s belief in the potential of broadband to aircraft is such that the company is nudging satellite operators in the direction of a super-HTS-type spacecraft with more bandwidth to be delivered via higher-power, smaller beams. He said the typical beam configuration on current HTS satellites, with beams measuring 2 degrees or less, should give way to highly concentrated 1-degree beams.

Panasonic’s eXConnect service using Ku-band satellite capacity is one of several aeronautical broadband services that are all taking different routes to what industry officials say is a business niche set to grow rapidly.

London-based Inmarsat is using Ka-band frequencies for its Global Xpress constellation of three or four satellites, the first of which is scheduled for launch this month.

Gogo Inc. of Itaska, Ill., which has pioneered in-flight Wi-Fi through air-to-ground links in the United States without using satellite capacity, is now eyeing satellite links as it expands beyond the United States, said David Russell, Gogo senior vice president and global operations manager.

Gogo has 2,000 aircraft outfitted with its service and is looking to augment its capability with Ku-band satellite capacity, Russell said. Gogo understands that the appetite for bandwidth will force the company to seek other means beyond the current Air-To-Ground (ATG) links, he added.

Russell said airlines choosing to provide free Wi-Fi to passengers ultimately will need to use high-throughput satellites because the ATG network would be saturated. In addition, as Gogo expands to cover the international fleets of customers like Delta, American Airlines and Japan Air Lines, it will need satellite capacity.

He said that a couple of years ago Google decided to offer free in-flight Wi-Fi, using ATG, to those flying to Las Vegas to the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Demand overwhelmed the system.

Russell said that whatever the form of the broadband, all airlines will need to provide it to passengers even if some are resisting the investment in retrofitting their current fleets.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.