Inmarsat JetWave Hardware for GX Aviation Installation on Honeywell B757 Test Aircraft 1
Airlines will find ways to keep passengers connected, satellite execs say. The goal now is keeping them secure. Credit: Inmarsat

WASHINGTON — Travel bans barring passengers from bringing laptops and tablet computers onboard airplanes aren’t much cause for concern for satellite operators who provide airlines with internet connectivity, executives said May 25, but protecting those devices from hackers and cyber criminals is.

Inmarsat and ViaSat, two satellite operators reporting fast growth from connecting passenger devices on commercial aircraft, dismissed fears that recently introduced bans, intended to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks, would stunt an otherwise lucrative business opportunity.

“Right now a laptop is the least-used device in the broadband networks that we are supporting,” Ric VanderMeulen, vice president of space and satellite broadband for ViaSat’s Government Systems Division, said during a Washington Space Business Roundtable panel here. “Phones are first, tablets are second, and laptops are about seven percent of the market.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security introduced a restriction on personal electronic devices in March, requiring any that are “larger than a cell phone or smartphone be placed in checked baggage,” for aircraft travelling from 10 airports in the Middle East. Politico and several news outlets report that the U.S. might extend the ban to other locations, including Europe.

Inmarsat’s Tim Johnson, vice president of enterprise strategy and development, said some airlines are already developing ways to ensure passengers can stay connected despite the ban.

“You probably won’t be able to work around a laptop ban much,” he said, “but … the approaches [we’ve] seen, especially Emirates providing tablets to passengers towards the front of the plane, they will find ways to try to deal with the issues of high-value passengers.”

More pertinent to inflight connectivity providers is the mounting risk of cyber vulnerabilities. Johnson said there has been a growing emphasis inside Inmarsat over the last several years on cybersecurity.

“There is a very high expectation for us to be cyber resilient, and so there are untold piles of resources inside City Road [London, where Inmarsat is headquartered] that are focused on cybersecurity across maritime, across aviation, across land, looking not just at the network side, but the terminal side with value-added manufacturers,” he said. “It’s very much front of mind for us because we know for our end users it is very much front of mind.”

ViaSat’s VanderMeulen said the satellite industry is shifting away from an approach where different parts of the infrastructure for a satellite connection are sourced from various suppliers who might have different security standards.

“Most everybody, I think, is moving toward this holistic concept where you now control the network at all points. So in this future where we are more holistic, let’s think about who is going to be your best friend in this cyber-threat world: someone who bolts something on on a modular basis, or your broadband [Internet Service Provider]?” he said.

ViaSat reported 559 commercial aircraft using its connectivity services as of March 31, and more than 830 in backlog. Johnson said Inmarsat has around 16,000 aircraft using its broadband services — though a large portion of that is L-band safety services to cockpits — and that the operator has around 1,000 aircraft under contract, installed or in the process of installation, with 3,000 more in backlog.

SmartSky Networks, a startup building out an air-to-ground (ATG) network across the continental United States for connectivity mainly for business jets, has been building cybersecurity defenses into its system before it is launched, according to Bruce Holmes, vice president of digital aviation.

“We are in a position of having enough bandwidth and low latency that we can deploy [Virtual Private Network] secure access practices for those functions that warrant that level of security,” he said. He also referenced blockchain technology, a system used for security in financial transactions that also has the potential to find use in other applications. “We are pursuing any and all of those kinds of capabilities as a means of providing security necessary for especially non-flight critical systems, but eventually with an eye toward flight critical.”

SmartSky raised $170 million for its ATG network last month, bringing its total capital raised to a quarter billion. The company plans to activate its network of 250 towers later this year.

Holmes said SmartSky Networks is considering services in commercial aviation and for unmanned aerial vehicles after securing its space in business aviation. He emphasized, as Smartsky has in the past, that the company envisions its ATG system being complementary to satellite, with customers employing technology such as intelligent routers that can switch between ATG and satellite based on availability and customer preference. The laptop ban doesn’t apply to business aviation, he said.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...