LONDON — Airlines seeking to future-proof their satellite broadband investments should be able to purchase a single antenna system that works with multiple satellite systems but the satellite owners have not yet made that happen, satellite fleet operators said.
Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat and Inmarsat of London, which are deploying global Ka-band broadband services for airlines, agreed that timing was the only obstacle to developing a common antenna standard.
“Rupert and I have talked about cooperating but our organizations somehow can’t seem to do it,” ViaSat President Rick Baldridge said here April 4 at a Satellite Finance Network conference, organized at Inmarsat’s headquarters by the law firm Bird & Bird. He was referring to Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce, who was sitting next to him during a panel discussion.
“You can build antennas that will work; we just certified our first Ka-/Ku-band antenna. It covers the entire Ka-band spectrum, so it covers the spectrum that Inmarsat has on its satellites, and it covers Ku-band as well,” Baldridge said.
ViaSat has a thriving business selling mobile broadband hardware to the U.S. Defense Department. It recently demonstrated, with medium-Earth-satellite constellation operator O3b Networks of Britain’s Channel Islands, that putative competitors could join forces to provide improved services to customers.
O3b Chief Executive Steve Collar said the demonstration gave the test customer, whom he declined to identify, a vastly improved throughput despite the fact that the military applies multiple transmission-security protocols that can slow connectivity.
O3b operates 12 Ka-band satellites in orbit, with eight more on order. It has not targeted airline connectivity as a major market, but Collar said the ViaSat-O3b tests for the U.S. military provide hints of how competitors can create win-win situations by collaborating.
“This is the way things will develop,” Collar said. “Less and less will need to be done [by customers] to accommodate different operators’ networks. Scale is a big part of our success. Having some level of interoperability in the past had to be mandated. In the future, it will just happen.”
ViaSat and Inmarsat operate satellites in geostationary orbit. ViaSat’s current focus is North America, where it has bandwidth available for commercial airlines using the ViaSat-1 satellite. ViaSat-2 – more powerful with a larger coverage area including the North Atlantic oceanic route – is scheduled for launch in 2017.
ViaSat has concluded joint ventures with Paris-based Eutelsat that will add Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat, already in orbit, to provide a larger total coverage area when combined with ViaSat’s satellites.
In addition, ViaSat has ordered two terabit-per-second satellites from Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, to add bandwidth over the Americas and Europe. A third satellite, over the Asia-Pacific, is planned but has not yet been ordered.
Inmarsat has three Inmarsat-5 Global Xpress Ka-band satellites in orbit providing global coverage. A fourth, under construction by Boeing, will be launched into a yet-undisclosed orbital slot.
One industry official said Inmarsat and ViaSat opened cooperation discussions over a year ago, with no result. One possible explanation is that Inmarsat had yet to deploy its Global Xpress fleet and ViaSat was only just debuting its commercial aeronautical broadband offer in the United States.
The two companies’ strategies would now appear to be on a more-solid footing.
“We ought to be more cooperative so that it’s just like cell-phone networks,” Baldridge said. “We are much better off being able to roam in and out of zones, to create more of a standard.”
Pearce said he agreed, but he questioned whether the airline-antenna market offers sufficient economies of scale.
“One of the reasons you have standards is the benefits of scale,” Pearce said. “I don’t really see that yet in the long-haul aviation market. There just aren’t enough airframes in the world today to take massive costs out of the antenna market, for example, by our banding together.
“We’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of units,” Pearce said. “Nonetheless, I do see enormous advantages for the industry in collaborating. There is no sense in everyone throwing capacity at the market, willy-nilly, just to have a right to exist. Eventually you’ve got to see sanity prevail so people can collaborate for win-win outcomes.”
Pearce and Baldridge also agreed that once several global satellite broadband networks are in place, commercial airlines would begin to scrap seat-back screens when ordering new aircraft.
“CEOs of airlines have been public about this – about moving toward a bring-your-own-device wireless network,” Pearce said. “That is not a surprise. These IFE [in-flight entertainment] networks are very heavy, cost tens of millions of dollars to certify and they get obsolete. Passengers buy devices every two years with better screens and better color. The key is when these promised networks arrive and deliver the promised services.
“There’s only one thing works than having a big, heavy, expensive IFE box on your plane, and that’s replacing it with something that doesn’t work very well. We’ve got to see the ViaSats, Inmarsats, Panansonics and others deliver. When that happens, you’ll see IFE naturally wither away.”