New planning tool helps airlines budget for satellite capacity

How do you plan where to point the spot beams of a satellite? How do you estimate bandwidth consumption for any given aircraft, route or airline on a daily or annualized basis? And, most importantly, how do you combine these goals to properly predict where the planes will be and how they will be drawing data through the air as they fly?

For satellite operator SES the approach to answering these questions changed earlier this year. While the company has always had some automation the latest iteration takes that to a new level, combining satellite coverage and capacity with flight schedules and path data. The net result is a powerful planning tool which can help an individual airline in budgeting for a capacity purchase or even help the company in planning coverage of a new satellite system.

The key to SES’s system is, of course, data. Getting the satellite coverage maps (both for SES’s and its competitors) is relatively easy. Getting the aircraft information is a bit more challenging. Ultimately the answer came in the form of a dump from the OAG database, the most comprehensive commercial collection of flight information in the world. A year’s worth of schedules was imported into the planning tool and then flights paths were mapped along great circle routes. From there the system was configured to calculate the theoretical position of every commercial flight at any given point in time.

From there SES calculates how many seats are flying in any given spot beam and, based on configurable settings for take rate and bandwidth consumption per user, it is possible to quickly generate bandwidth and spectrum demand estimates for any given satellite or carrier. The system also identifies “hot spots” on the coverage map, allowing the company to optimize bandwidth purchase details; the goal is to not only build satellites which put coverage where it is most needed but also to sell that coverage where it is most needed. It is a huge optimization calculation and this new tool simplifies the process through visualizations.

Steve Corda, SES’s VP of business development for North America explains the end result, “We sample these flights and determine how many seats are in the air at the peak time in any given beam we have… I can determine at the minute which has the maximum consumption how much bandwidth I need [in each beam].” And, while similar calculations were similarly possible in the past the new system allows such calculations to be performed in near real-time; during a trial run each query took less than a minute to render.

SES – which recently partnered with Global Eagle Entertainment to support the connectivity provider’s service for airline partners, including Southwest Airlines – is also offering a new pricing model for bandwidth on its forthcoming high throughput satellites (HTS). Rather than buying a set amount of power or bandwidth in each spot the company has developed a hybrid plan. Customers will still have a maximum power allocation they’ve purchased but within each spot beam there is some flexibility on capacity and demand. If a particular set of spots have fewer planes at a particular time of day the customer can decrease the power consumption in those spots and increase it in others where demand is higher. While this is a dynamic option available in real-time it does not scan infinitely; there are still maximum values per beam which no customer can exceed. Still, this approach aims to help SES’s customers get more bandwidth where and when it is needed. That benefit should eventually trickle down to passengers as well.

Note: The image above is a hypothetical beam placement at an arbitrary orbital location and does not reflect SES’s satellite plans.

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