Will Ku connectivity camp retain its lead?


In 2010, when Inmarsat announced plans to launch a new global mobile broadband service called Global Xpress (GX) and commissioned Boeing to deliver state-of-the-art Ka-band satellites to serve as the backbone of the network, inflight connectivity providers offering Wi-Fi over Ku-band satellites reminded the commercial airline market that they had a ‘here and now’ solution, versus one that would take several years to roll out.

But as some Ku-band inflight connectivity providers have encountered delays to their equipage schedules, and as global Ka via Inmarsat’s GX program continues to hit its benchmarks – while a regional Ka solution from LiveTV and ViaSat is rolled out onto JetBlue and United aircraft – the big head start advantage enjoyed by the Ku camp appears to be slipping, suggest GX service providers Gogo and OnAir. Even so, a sizable number of carriers are staying the course, and installing Ku.

“The thing that Gogo didn’t like about GX two years ago was it wasn’t coming for three years, so that window is closing and we are aggressively selling Global Xpress now. But airlines have choice and some airlines – Delta and others – still believe that Ku is the right choice for their operation,” Gogo SVP international operations David Russell said at the recent HMG Aerospace-hosted IFEC conference at Aircraft Interiors Middle East (AIME) in Dubai.

Because GX isn’t expected to be commercially available until 2015, Gogo concluded “that we had to have an interim Ku solution, which we’re rolling out on Delta and Japan [Airlines] as well, so that’s why we ended up in the Ku business. And there are evidences that some airlines would not wait for Global Xpress Ka, so what do you do?”

Delta’s schedule for rolling out connectivity on its long-haul fleet has been delayed in the face of heightened FAA scrutiny of bird strike testing of antenna radomes. Two Boeing 747s have been fitted with Gogo Ku hardware, and will be flight tested over the coming weeks. Japan Airlines is installing Gogo on domestic aircraft under FAA exemption from bird strike (which lasts for one year). Panasonic Avionics, which counts United, Emirates, Lufthansa, Etihad Airways and others as Ku connectivity customers, has admitted that its installs have been delayed due to the bird strike issue, while Global Eagle Entertainment is installing Ku systems on 737 aircraft under a grandfathered STC.

Russell says Gogo hopes that the same issues impacting Ku radomes won’t “appear in the future with other technologies” but noted that the company “didn’t expect them to appear on Ku so that window, I agree, that window of vulnerability is closing for GX, but we don’t know what we don’t know, as we found out in the Delta program.”

Honeywell, which is providing the terminal units for GX, previously told Runway Girl Network that it believes its Ka-band antenna radomes will prove fully compliant with the FAA’s protocol on bird strike, and that it foresees no hiccups in this regard.

Like Gogo, inflight connectivity provider OnAir is a service distribution partner for GX to the commercial airline sector. And its services will operate over Honeywell hardware. However, in contrast to Gogo, OnAir did not pursue Ku as a stop-gap measure, but rather offers mobile and Wi-Fi services over Inmarsat’s L-band-based SwiftBroadband and tells carriers they can easily graduate to Ka starting in 2015.

Using stronger language than Gogo’s Russell at the AIME conference, OnAir CEO Ian Dawkins suggested that the window of advantage enjoyed by Ku “has closed”. Noting that Ka “isn’t a new or revolutionary technology” and “is operating today” with proven terminals for military applications, Dawkins also suggested that the risk of delays in rolling out Ka in the commercial sector “are very remote”.

Inmarsat regional director, aviation Ben Griffin confirmed that Honeywell is making “good progress with Boeing and airframers to have linefit capability” for its connectivity hardware for GX. Additionally, noted Griffin, “F1 is in final orbital position. [That’s] the first satellite, and we start live testing in about three or four weeks, and will stretch the legs of the payload, so the end to end purpose testing of F1. F2 and F3 will launch in the Q2 and A3, remain bang on schedule. So thankfully there is very little news to tell…”

Meanwhile, Gogo is eager to lock down its first connectivity customer in the Middle East. The company is “looking for our first airline partner” in the region, said Russell.

“We have a person based in Dubai and another in Abu Dhabi, to work hand in hand with Ben [from Inmarsat] and other partners down here. We’re very eager to secure our first customer in the region. We were very keen, and we worked very hard to become a Global Xpress value added reseller. We love the fact that it’s ubiquitous, designed for mobility, which other networks, Ku particularly, was not designed for mobility. It was designed for broadcast television.”

Russell added, however, that there are Ku satellites “being retired all the time and there are other ones being launched and some industry figures suggest that the ones that are [being] launched are 10 to 15 times better than the ones they will retire, so Ku capability is increasing so you take out non performing assets and put in performing assets”.

Intelsat’s EPIC platform – which is also on track to hit its benchmarks – is obviously one of many examples. And some Ku customers, such as Lufthansa, have already affirmed their commitment to Ku, as evidenced by the German carrier’s decision to select Panasonic’s Ku solution for its Airbus A350 XWBs.

Asked if Gogo would ever try to establish an air-to-ground (ATG)-supported connectivity offering in the Middle East or Europe as it has done in the United States, Russell said the key problem in the Middle East is “getting spectrum across territories”. For Europe, two or three consortia have been looking at ATG [spectrum] for some time, “but haven’t been able to find it”.