Relationships evolve as El Al picks ViaSat for 737s


ViaSat is known in the United States for supplying its Exede regional Ka-band high-speed connectivity service to both JetBlue and United Airlines. But the company is now working to rapidly expand its footprint to include overseas clients, and has secured Israeli carrier El Al in what it is describing as its “first launch customer in Europe for Exede”.

The deal is interesting on a number of levels. Firstly, ViaSat says it plans to immediately begin working toward certification and installation of Exede terminals on El Al Boeing 737s that fly from Tel Aviv into several European cities. Those of you who have followed ViaSat’s progression over the last few years will wonder whether JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV – which handles certification and installation for Exede on JetBlue and United – is involved in the El Al program.

ViaSat director Don Buchman tells Runway Girl Network that ViaSat is not working with LiveTV on the El Al deal, and will seek to become the supplemental type certificate (STC) holder for the 737, and other types as new airlines customers – and new opportunities – unfold. ViaSat, which will be responsible for providing and managing a complete inflight Internet service to the aircraft, including airborne terminals, antennas, and radomes, will “immediately” begin working toward certification and installation of the Exede terminals on EL AL aircraft with a target date to launch service within one year, it says.

Part of the reason why ViaSat is pursuing STC is “El Al’s preference,” says Buchman. “They’ve already contracted with Lufthansa Systems for the Wi-Fi streaming portion, BoardConnect, so already there is a separate vendor, so it makes sense to have a direct relationship with El Al for this project.” But ViaSat has made no secret of its interest in forging direct relationships with airlines, and seeking STC for other types.

As part of the arrangement announced today, ViaSat will buy air time from the Eutelsat KA-SAT high-capacity Ka-band satellite that covers Europe. “Eutelsat is essentially subcontracted; their core business is selling bandwidth to resellers so they do that in the news and video distribution industry and in the aviation industry. We subcontracted with them on Yonder [Ku connectivity for business aircraft] for eight years now, so there is no difference on business models. This one happens to be a little unique because the structure of KA-SAT; ViaSat plays more of an integral role there because they’re using our infrastructure on the ground, and our software.”

Effectively, what all this means is that ViaSat and LiveTV – while partners on certain programs – are now competitors in the market.

Last month, LiveTV announced it had inked a deal with Eutelsat to buy air time from the KA-SAT satellite to power inflight connectivity in Europe. Aer Lingus, a partner to JetBlue, is the launch customer, and LiveTV’s A320 STC will support the launch.

“I believe our relationship is we’re supplying all the equipment, and Eutelsat is using our equipment and [ViaSat SurfBeam] infrastructure for that Aer Lingus [contract] as well, similar to what we’re doing here,” says Buchman. But there is a key difference – LiveTV is the lead on the Aer Lingus deal, and counts Aer Lingus as its first European customer for regional Ka, while ViaSat now counts El Al as its first customer in Europe.