ATG, Ku, Ka, who cares? Why it’s all about the bandwidth

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Do the letters really matter anymore? Multiple inflight connectivity technologies are available and have been for some time now. Airlines and providers have chosen sides and the rhetoric in many cases sounds almost like a religious debate: Certainly your solution cannot be a good one because mine is the One True Connectivity offer.

But the passenger does not care about ATG or L or Ka or Ku or whatever other letters you toss at them. And, increasingly, the airlines are starting to agree with that approach, choosing the correct solution for sub-fleets and route profiles. Often that also means bifurcation of service providers, but maybe that’s not the only option.

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In an interesting twist of message, several of the service providers at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg seem to finally be adopting a similar view. Panasonic’s David Bruner was rather emphatic in his message that the names don’t matter; it is all about what bandwidth can be delivered to an aircraft and at what price.

Coverage is also important, of course, and Mike Moeller of Thales InFlyt (the new branding for the company’s IFEC product suite), notes that while the group is currently focused on Ka-band via its ViaSat and GlobalXpress partnerships, polar coverage via the Iridium NEXT solution may be able to reach multi-megabit speeds in the very near future.

ViaSat’s Don Buchman echoed the sentiment, “We don’t have a Ka hammer looking for connectivity nails to hit around the world. We are trying to solve the bandwidth demand for the global market, to best do that economically and strategically and stay in business for the long run.”

Gogo, which announced its GTO dual-technology solution at the 2013 APEX conference and 2Ku dual satellite solution at the 2014 AIX conference is perhaps the closest vendor to actually implementing a multi-platform connectivity solution on a single airplane but we’re still not quite there yet. And even the GTO multi-technology platform is limited geographically to terrestrial operations, currently only viable over the United States and Canada.

So is there a future for something even more aggressive on this front. Might we finally see a vendor introduce a multi-technology solution offering bi-directional service from multiple different vendors and technology streams on the same aircraft? Yes, there are increased hardware expenses and increased operational costs to fly the additional weight around on every flight. But there are also operational benefits of such a move. System redundancy becomes viable rather than just a theory. The idea of an airplane as a “node on the network” becomes more viable as the operations side becomes more reliable. And redundancy via diverse communications paths sits very high up on the hierarchy when it comes to building redundant platforms.

Thales’ Moeller also suggests that a single provider may not be able to provide sufficient capacity for the ever-growing consumer demand, even with the new satellites going into service, “As we start to look globally and really looking at widebodies, certain types of airlines and certain types of fleets and you want to serve 500 passengers and have a great passenger experience, how do you do that on one network, to give the bandwidth you need? Let’s have the technology on the aircraft so that wherever I fly I use the best networks available.”