Google is space-bound, according to multiple reports. The company refuses to confirm or deny stories suggesting that it will launch a satellite-based connectivity platform by the end of the decade. Still, given the circumstantial evidence available today (see here, here, here and here) it is worth looking more closely at what impact this move might have on the inflight connectivity market.
Google – d/b/a WorldVu and f/k/a SkyBridge – could be a game-changer in the inflight connectivity market. But there are still any number of challenges the company must overcome, from design to manufacture to launch. And, based on the application to the ITU, they must be in position to have the system operational in 5 years’ time. That’s a very aggressive timeline in the space-based communications world.
Google is reported to be the money behind recent ITU filings from WorldVu which has acquired rights to a swath of spectrum previously assigned to SkyBridge. This spectrum will be used to build out global coverage, providing Ku-band satellite data connectivity to potentially billions of people, and maybe a few airplanes as well. With the WorldVu solution Google will have a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) option rather than a Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) constellation. This means smaller satellites and lower latency but it also requires more satellites to cover the globe and it presents challenges for some geographic regions, including overwater areas.
LEO satellites in the Ku-band must not interfere with the GEO satellites using the same frequencies. In some cases this requires that the Ku-band LEO birds simply do not function within 10 degrees of the equator. The SkyBridge spectrum is exempt from that rule, however, based on an agreement reached at the 1997 ITU World Radiocommunications Conference. This mean the service may operate within that 20 degree range but it must also yield to the GEO satellites still. Coverage is possible but more complex.
Because of the lower orbit altitude it not possible for satellites in overwater areas to communicate directly with ground stations. In order to offer a truly global coverage it is necessary that the satellites be able to pass data between themselves, allowing those out of range from a ground station to pass data through the others until it can get to the ground. This presents a significant change to the economics of launching the constellation.
The satellites become larger and heavier in addition to more complex. That translates to higher manufacturing and launch costs. And that generally means higher bandwidth costs to service providers and consumers. Google may be willing to subsidize some of that expense as a loss-leader towards getting more eyeballs on the ads they serve, but the financial details behind WorldVu are not particularly clear at this time.
Even when launched it is not clear that the solution would be suitable for aviation purposes. The requirement to switch more frequently between satellites means more complex antennae and tracking systems. These are much cheaper today than a decade ago when SkyBridge first attempted to launch such systems and there are vendors such as Kymeta that believe they can reduce the costs even more (though delivery timing on their product remains uncertain). And if the WorldVu system launches without oceanic and polar coverage that would similarly reduce the appeal for a large portion of flights.