Inflight connectivity providers are working hard at improvements in satellite antenna technology, bringing a variety of new options to the market. This past week saw the announcement of two new options for aircraft, the combination a Ku/Ka antenna from ViaSat and the phased array Ku antenna from Panasonic/Boeing. These two options join Gogo’s 2Ku product as among the solutions airlines are likely to be buying and installing in the coming months to years. Each of the three is a different size and each of the vendors agrees on one thing: size matters.
For Panasonic the goal is getting the antenna to be smaller. David Bruner, Panasonic’s VP of Global Communications Service, focused on the 2.7-inch profile and 140-pound weight target for its phased array solution as game-changing in terms of operating costs on smaller aircraft. It is a solution the company believes is squarely targeted at narrowbody aircraft where the weight and drag penalties are amortized over fewer passengers. The smaller antenna also means limits on where the antenna can operate efficiently. Bruner suggested that a 20° elevation – approximately 55° north or south – was the limit at which the new system would be viable. This excludes some trans-oceanic routes from consideration. The antenna will work on routes between NY and LHR, for instance, but not say from Frankfurt to Seattle.
Gogo’s solution uses 30-inch antennae; it is larger than the Panasonic offering and heavier as well. CTO Anand Chari acknowledges that the ThinKom-made antennae used in the 2Ku solution are larger but sees that as a benefit for airline customers. “The size of the antenna is chosen carefully so that you have the maximum coverage as you go up north. We believe that even less than 10° elevation – that’s way above the Arctic Circle – this will work fine.” Not only does the larger antenna give broader coverage range but it also increases performance. Chari continued, “We didn’t choose a 20-inch because then you have an issue as you go up north in terms of coverage and performance. More than coverage it is performance. We chose an optimal size so that you can serve a global fleet.” Given the Gogo deal recently announced with Virgin Atlantic (and first reported in RGN Premium) it is clear they see that global fleet play working well. The 2Ku offering will require a radome, and Gogo has already sourced a vendor.
As for ViaSat, its new combination antenna allows switching between Ku and Ka-band services under the same radome. This provides more flexibility to customers looking to get the best connectivity regardless of satellite technology. It is also a bit heavier than either the Ka-only or Ku-only options on the market. Speaking at the APEX Expo conference in Anaheim, ViaSat VP for Exede Mobility Don Buchman suggested the airlines that his company is working with have struggled to quantify the operational financial impact of adding the satellite hardware to aircraft.
Size clearly matters when it comes to inflight connectivity. It affects performance, coverage and – at least in theory – operating efficiencies for the aircraft. But it remains unclear if bigger or smaller is better.
Pictured above: Panasonic’s new electronic phased array on the left and Gogo’s 2Ku on the right.