ViaSat has hybrid Ku/Ka connectivity in its sight

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ViaSat aims to roll out a hybrid Ku-Ka inflight connectivity system on a government aircraft before the end of the year, and believes the commercial airline market may be receptive to similar packages.

The company offers its ‘Exede’ Ka connectivity service on JetBlue and United Airlines aircraft, but the high-capacity service is currently regional to the United States, and Ka coverage over the North Atlantic isn’t expected to be available until mid-2016 with the launch of ViaSat-2. It also offers over-the-ocean Ku connectivity on business aircraft – a service known as Yonder – and so certain customers see value in a hybrid approach because of the attractive economics of Ka and the near global nature of Ku.

“We are building a hybrid Ku/Ka [system]. We’re entering final certification. We have been doing our testing. We’re looking at being in service on government aircraft in the summertime, or at least before the end of the calendar year,” says ViaSat director Don Buchman.

This is not the first time ViaSat has mentioned a hybrid offering. The company in 2010 told Flightglobal it envisaged exploiting the “existing, near-global Ku network” with this “overlay of islands of Ka-band”, and that the natural extension of that would be a dual-band antenna that could switch between high-capacity Ka regions and over-the-ocean Ku regions. However, at that time, ViaSat was not prepared to discuss a specific solution.

“Yes, I have been pushing Ku/Ka for a long time. The market hasn’t been ready for it. I think we’re in the middle of proving out the market. I think we’ll get a warmer reception to the hybrid story this time around,” says Buchman. Initially, government aircraft and large business jets would be targeted.

“Yonder is on Gulfstreams and on Globals and that is the perfect fit for those markets because they go to every corner of the earth, but they do spend flight time here and are all candidates [for hybrid Ku/ka],” says Buchman.

Would a successful launch of hybrid Ku/Ka on government and business aircraft tempt commercial airlines to consider similar offerings? Quite possibly.

ViaSat has enjoyed tremendously positive press for its Exede service on JetBlue and United. And it recently announced a deal to bring regional Ka to El Al. To meet its commitment to El Al, ViaSat will buy air time from the Eutelsat KA-SAT high-capacity Ka-band satellite that covers Europe.

“One of the critical competitive factors is – are you global or not? Right now there is nothing that approaches a global Ka [for ViaSat] and there won’t be for decade to a decade-and-a-half,” says Chris Quilty, senior vice president at Raymond James & Assoc.

“Yes, there are niche customers like JetBlue on a regional basis and it will become ‘supra’ with ViaSat-2 over the North Atlantic, but I think Ku – when you have Intelsat Epic [HTS] satellites up – becomes a lot more palatable to customers out there. If they [ViaSat] could come up with a legitimate Ku/Ka antenna that hits the cost price points, that could be a little bit of a game changer for them.”

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