Face-to-face with Iridium on NEXT for safety service, bizav cabins

With ICAO’s first Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) recommendation slated to take effect in November 2018, Iridium is gearing up to support a variety of solutions – from aircraft position reporting to space-based ADS-B payloads – via its forthcoming Iridium NEXT constellation. During the recent National Aviation Business Association (NBAA) convention in Orlando, RGN sat down with Iridium Communications director of product management Brian Pemberton to discuss the next steps for Iridium in the cockpit and the cabin.

It seems as if some aircraft operators are waiting for space-based ADS-B from Aireon – the Iridium joint venture with Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) – in order to meet the GADSS mandate, rather than implement flight tracking. Do you agree?

BP: [Aireon] is making progress validating and testing the payloads and they are installed on the satellites which we have at Vandenberg Air Force base today ready for launch. [We’re] just waiting for the green light from SpaceX and we will proceed with Iridium NEXT constellation initial deployment. But alternatively we have multiple partners that are taking sort of our core business and developing GADSS solutions using flight-tracking elements from our current constellation. So some examples are FLYHT, Panasonic and others, so I think when you look at GADSS as a catalyst to different innovative technologies within the industry whether between Iridium and its partners and our more traditional business or what Aireon will be doing in space-based ADS-B, Iridium is well positioned to lead the way in GADSS technology for the next decade or so.

You mention Panasonic and FLYHT. In your mind, will there be a preferable solution for tracking via Iridium NEXT?

BP: Thales is [also] a partner, [as is] Rockwell Collins; SITA is one and I think every service provider is going to end up with their own flavor of GADSS solution over the next three to five years as the airlines understand what they are looking for but also the ANSP industry as a separate cohort or separate stakeholder. And then where do the two meet in satisfying that solution or that evolution? I think we are well positioned with a foot in both camps to really be differentiated with the global coverage and the low-cost solutions to be able to provide tracking everywhere.

Recently we saw a little bit of drama play out on the safety services side as it pertains to Inmarsat and its partners, SITAONAIR being perhaps the most vocal about facing price hikes for Classic Aero, as airlines are migrated to the SwiftBroadband-Safety service. But does this also create an opportunity for Iridium?

BP: One of the things we are introducing and speaking to is what we call Iridium Certus, which is our new broadband solution across markets and specifically aviation. And we are getting a lot of momentum behind that product as an alternative in the market and as a follow-on or accessory to what we’ve [already achieved] – our success in the aviation market today. It will leverage the Iridium NEXT constellation. I would say I think our competitors maybe have done us a little bit of a favor at this time in what seems to be an intent to drive some momentum for migration [to SwiftBroadband] within their own customer base. [In so doing] they have caused the customer base – and I think especially the service providers as well – [to explore] what alternatives are going to be out there. And frankly the timing of SwiftBroadband-Safety is looking mid-2018 or later based on what Inmarsat recently presented and Iridium Certus safety qualified terminals will be ready at roughly the same timeline, possibly even a little sooner. So we are talking about having attributes that Swiftbroadband-Safety won’t have, and that we will have greater coverage globally, probably [a] lower price point. It could be an upgrade path if an airline already has something installed or if they want to go for performance, we will offer a higher speed than what SwiftBroadband has and all of that along the same timeline of what the competition.

Really? Higher speeds than SwiftBroadband?

BP: Yeah. [Our] baseline service with a high gain antenna provides 700 Kbps throughput and in a couple of years that could even be [more] using the same antenna [and] might be able to be upgradable to 1.4 Mbps. So that is something well beyond what SwiftBroadband is able to provide today without sort of multi-channel systems. This will be a single channel to MCU platform with what we believe to be a price point very attractive to other solutions.

Inmarsat believes the FAA will recommend SwiftBroadband-Safety by the spring of 2017 (see article here). You seem to be less bullish on your competitor’s timeline. Why?

BP: True. There is sort of two elements there. First is they are expecting the FAA to make an announcement and they’ve said … first half or spring of next year. That seems a little optimistic as some of the precursors for that to take place are still yet to happen and Iridium very much went through the same process years ago when we were getting recognized for safety services through the PARC Communications Working Group and from the time that the PARC CWG submitted their letter of recommendation till a decision was taken by the FAA was on the order of six months. So that would mean that the PARC would have to have issued something by now or in the very near future and certainly by year-end to stay on their timeline and yet the next PARC meeting isn’t scheduled until first quarter of next year. So their timing might not be too far off but probably a little optimistic based on history at least – the one data point that exists today. But the second element is really when will the avionics that support SB-Safety or SB evolution be available and Inmarsat’s own presentation to the Datalink Users Forum not too many weeks ago was showing the earliest to be available in mid-18 and then a couple follow-up products in 2019. So they might even be recognized sometime in 2017 but no one will be able to equip it…

Unless they do like Hawaiian and FedEx and modify their current systems and go through that process (see update on Hawaiian via PR here). With very specific regard to the business aviation world, Iridium has really nice placement in this part of the industry, right?

BP: We do; we are probably the broadest option of equipage across the industry on the order of 10,000 business jets are equipped with Iridium today through partners like Gogo and Rockwell and Satcom Direct – they’re the core service providers there and the we were sort of the FANS solution of choice if you will as the FANS mandate for the North Atlantic started to be proposed, and this community all of a sudden started to wake up to the idea that they were going to have to do FANS and Iridium and its partners, I think, were very successful in becoming that low-cost choice for those larger business jets that would be transiting the North Atlantic or others. But also we have a very strong position in the cabin for VIP calling and some of those types of services today. So one of the key things we look at is Iridium Certus – with the higher throughput – is how can we leverage that position from telephony to now be a broadband solution for many of these communities as well. Because again most of these aircraft have one, two maybe three passengers at a time so something in the 700 Kbps up to 1.4 Mbps really fits a nice position for a lot of these aircraft, especially some of the smaller aircraft that aren’t able to accommodate a Ku or Ka antenna.

So you’d be looking at a basic cabin connectivity offering like messaging, email, etc, for the cabin?

BP: Email, VPN, the remote office type of stuff, not really looking to video conferencing there – maybe with technological compression stuff that could be a viable user experience there – but really the sort of remote office-type functionality we think we can do very well with and be very successful for the light medium to medium business jet up to some of the larger business jets and maybe even as a complementary system to some of the Ku and Ka [connectivity] or those that may fly longer routes or into areas where they don’t have coverage.

The rollout of Certus hinges on the launch of Iridium NEXT, which is delayed due to SpaceX launch vehicle issues. What is the very latest?

BP: So we are very encouraged by the progress that SpaceX has made. We are in part of an investigation into what they call the anomaly team with SpaceX where we get consistent updates of what they are looking at and they have been recently been able to, in their own mind, have a bit of a breakthrough of understanding what’s caused some of the challenges they had down here, down here [in Florida] at the fueling in Cape Canaveral. Their communication is they expect to return to flight this year and they are planning to have at least two launches this year. We would hopefully be – and expect to be – one of those launches. We are in the queue to be the next launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base once they return to flight. We’re fully ready to go again. Our satellites are tested; they are mounted to the spacehead module. They are there in Vandenberg and so we are waiting for the green light from SpaceX…

How much more useful life can you get out of the current Iridium constellation?

BP: We are doing very well. We had a setback earlier this year with a satellite that had failed, but we understood exactly why that took place and we knew that that was one of the satellites that was at risk. Let’s say if there was anything to go wrong, the rest of the constellation continues to perform very well and meet all of our performance measures and needs. So we expect that we will soon be able to get several more years of useful life out of the current constellation which will help us through the full migration to NEXT, which we expect to complete by mid 2018.

When RGN recently attended a Panasonic briefing on flight tracking, management shared details of a strategy that involves the FlightLink Iridium product, but also eXconnect Ku. Where do things stand at some of these various different ICAO meetings in terms of moving safety services over the cabin connectivity pipes? Do you really see that the baseline stuff is going to stay on L-band?

BP: At the moment, yes. I would say it seems to be the default position of the industry and there looks to be – especially from ANSP standpoint – [that] there would have to be some compelling event for them to sort of take the risk of moving away from L-band. It is a proven commodity, they are comfortable with it and L-band continues to be enhanced going forward with what Iridium is doing with Certus, what our competitors are doing [with SwiftBroadband-safety]. Greater bandwidth is coming, greater reliability is coming, lower latency is coming. So even as they are trying to get more out of the traditional links as far as improving safety and reducing separation, L-band has been able to grow with them to enable those capabilities. So Ku/Ka, there may be an opportunity there but I suspect that is probably still several years down the road before that door will probably open in a broad way.

What will your pricing look like relative to the competition?

BP: I think it depends on how you frame the competition. Ku and Ka, they’re already getting more and more aggressive with pricing and so prices are going down so we are not attempting to try to keep pace with where they are going. They have got capacity and really they are in customer orientation then what we are looking at. But [when] looking at other parties on the L-band space, we do believe we can be extremely competitive there. We think we have got a very compelling offer to the distribution channel to help relay some of that on to the end users but also in how the services we package from the cockpit voice and ACARS-type solutions as well as the data in the cabins, we think we have got a compelling … suite of services that are there that can be incorporated into a single unit and then give the service providers a lot of flexibility in how they package this to their customer.

You and I have talked about this in the past, about whether future would-be LEO and MEO operators pose a competitive threat to Iridium (OneWeb, etc). It could get crowded out there. Do you see a future threat, from a safety service standpoint? 

BP: No I don’t think it is. I think the space industry and the satellite industry, the lesson to be learned is the best laid plans will see delays. No one’s plan goes off exactly as desired. So when parties are talking about that they’ll be ready in 2020 or 2021 the reality is probably add a couple years. I mean that’s just what history has shown, whether it be for ourselves or everyone else in the industry and I think we are coming into introducing new services at a really interesting junction in the industry. The demand for data on these new aircraft is almost insatiable. Everything has got a sensor on it and everyone has got an idea of what they want to do with that and basically sell it back to the aircraft operator, so you have got a strong demand push for connectivity that goes beyond just people trying to get to email and the Internet. We think we are extremely well positioned for that between the low cost, the global coverage and the fact that we can really go on pretty much any airframe from rotorcraft to jumbo jet around the world.

QNA October 29 300-x-300So if an aircraft operates polar routes, is it just a given that it has Iridium cockpit connectivity on board at this point?

BP: It is certainly moving that way. I think, one of my colleagues was at the ICAO North Atlantic Working Group meeting a few months ago and there were some active conversations about placing restrictions on Inmarsat above certain latitudes through the North Atlantic because of coverage concerns, performance concerns and so he asked “well, is Iridium approved?” And he was like, ‘Of course you are global.’ So this is even the ANSP community at ICAO basically defaulting to the position Iridium, you are global, you work everywhere and that’s I think just one additional data point of the airlines and even this community coming to grips with one of the key differentiators between the two systems and now we’re adding data throughput and performance to that as well and we feel very pleased about what our offering is going to be for the next decade.

What about post-NEXT rollout; are you looking at something bigger and better?

BP: I think walk before we run, so let’s get NEXT successfully deployed. Let’s have service successfully deployed and then I think let’s see where the industry is. What do they want to do next? This idea that we need to always take these giant leaps forward and people are trying to prescribe a certain technology solution and we haven’t even introduced those technologies and seen what they are commercially able to do or functionally able to deliver. One of the pushes I personally perceive from the Ku and Ka world is that they were struggling for a business case for many years outside of sort of airline passenger connectivity. So anything they can use to justify – oh well here is another cost savings, here’s another feature – tries to help justify that ROI on that platform and I think that some of the higher speed L-band will be delivering over the next three, five and seven years is going to create some challenges for those partners or companies who are on the fence to just buy the biggest and the fastest. Is this market going to be offering, you know, 10, 20 30 Mbps solutions to an aircraft? If you have got two people on board they don’t need 20 and 30 Mbps. People don’t have that through their home today. They certainly don’t need it for the one person with their tablet in the back trying to do an email. So again this is technology sort of out-running what the customer really needs and so just trying to prescribe that, oh he’s what everyone is going to get use … seems a little premature.

What’s is your messaging to business aircraft operators? 

BP: I think the key is to raise awareness of Iridium service.

Specifically for the cabin then?

BP: Yeah, certainly here [at NBAA] to that audience. Certainly Iridium is sort of upgrading our play or upping our game in what we can bring to the cabin. Sort of [it is] repositioning ourselves a little bit there. We’ve got industry leading manufacturing partners, we have industry leading service providers to bring it to market and also for them to understand the timing of this. This isn’t five years into the future anymore, if you have got a purchase decision that you are going to be making in the next 12 months, this should be something that you are evaluating in the timeframe for your installation and STC, etc; it is probably going to be … right in the wheelhouse of what service will be available.

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