Panasonic Avionics is accustomed to working directly with airlines in providing inflight entertainment and connectivity hardware and services. That’s why the company’s decision to address the business aviation market through partners – Satcom Direct as value added reseller (VAR) and Astronics AeroSat as antenna hardware provider – is noteworthy. Runway Girl Network sat down with David Bruner, Panasonic Avionics’ VP of Global Communications Services, during the recent NBAA convention to gain a better understanding of the firm’s approach to this slice of the civil aviation market.
When did Panasonic and Astronics AeroSat decide to work this closely together to address the needs of business aircraft operators?
DB: I would say two years ago. So the first evidence of that was at last year’s NBAA when we announced “hey we are working together on this system”, and it’s unusual for us; they are going to supply all the hardware. That’s just not Panasonic, but it really made sense to us because it is a specialty market that’s unique and they had a great way of packaging the modem with their antenna. So we said “terrific let’s go do this”. It’s really driven by the fact that there is nothing like this antenna and I think what unlocked this market for us was an antenna that kind of met our requirements. We just didn’t want to start until we had something that we thought could deliver a superior product to anything on the market today. That’s driven by the antenna and so we teamed up with Astronics AeroSat and put this together and so now the first installations [are in] process and should have STC here shortly.
What aircraft type will receive STC first?
DB: It’s a Gulfstream IV, the first aircraft, and that will unlock the beginning of the Gulfstream modifications. There’s a whole lot of aircraft out there that have this spot; it’s already prepared because it fits exactly where an existing antenna is today that does television, and so this one will do broadband and television all in one unit so it really delivers a new level of service to this marketplace and as you know our proposition – versus some of the other [companies] that are here – is you get that great experience everywhere, not just in some places. It is everywhere the aircraft here [at NBAA] could fly. In fact, all of them within a very short period of time will be flying only in high throughput and so they’ll have superior performance which is really important given you have this little bitty antenna with really powerful satellites to deliver the kind of throughput we have. So those things are really good. They are unique to us. Others may say they are global but they don’t have enough bandwidth, and they are going to struggle saying they are supporting this, [plus airlines] and maritime. You better have a lot of bandwidth everywhere these people fly. Long-range aircraft, which is really kind of the target of this system, they go everywhere.
It would seem that in this particular sector, right now, Inmarsat Global Xpress will be the main competing solution to Panasonic for high throughput connectivity due to its near global nature; is that right?
DB: In the past it was kind of ViaSat Yonder, and their Ku service and still is kind of out there but doesn’t perform that well and with Global Xpress finally coming to market, and having some news … they are probably our number one competing service. You probably heard our announcement with Satcom Direct; they actually resell everything. But what’s good about it from our standpoint is they can supply everything and it’s really the customers that are going to decide what they want. You’ve got option A, B, and C. C is really great and that’s us. So we will have that relationship now. We have been working on it for a long time but the key thing is having all the pieces put together so that they can now go sell this into the marketplace. And they are an incredibly good customer service organization. So one of the things we did not do here was say “let’s go build up an organization and put it all around the world to provide the kind of very white glove special touch kind of support you need to have for this marketplace” so again it’s a really unusual step, we are teaming with somebody else who does that but we are going to enable them with a better communication service and they want to sell it like crazy so, it is a good marriage.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Satcom Direct; the firm is very excited about the VAR opportunity for sure. And it’s certainly a different approach for Panasonic.
DB: You can teach an old dog new tricks.
And you think this is the best way to go to this market; of course SD has such a dominant position, really?
DB: They do, and now they are moving into hardware and so we’ve got this combination of the best capabilities of all the different companies and there is more coming with this – today it’s about getting connected on this group of airplanes, but in the future there will be additional pieces that come into that, new services. We are like little kids running around right now in terms of “I want to do this, I want to do this” and that type of enthusiasm from old guys like me, and on their side, that’s because this is really cool and it will change things and the customers will be really happy with this and then they are going to want more. So we are already working on the “more” too, as this rolls out we can keep delivering new functionality and as you know this isn’t going to stop. Two or three years from now we will be talking about the next generation of all this technology. The new Newtec modem, recently announced, immediately goes into this product. It’s so important for this product to have the absolute best in class capability from a modem standpoint because you really have a challenged environment when you have such a small antenna. You need to be able to manage it differently than you do an [Airbus] A380 with 600 passengers. They both want to have the same experience but you have got to be able to manage it differently and the modem is a key part of that; you can just overwhelm it with bandwidth but in this case you can do it efficiently if you have the latest and greatest modem capability and so that is really what we have been working on now for about a year. One of the things that is different about our commercial proposition here is we provide what we call preferred bandwidth, our priority bandwidth, and they can pick you know, 1 Mbps, 2.5 Mbps and 4 Mbps and they get that wherever they fly in the world. And in this market, that is what they want.
Modems are definitely having a moment right now in the civil aviation industry.
DB: And they should have had it like last year or the year before but okay finally [we’re here]. And we are taking more responsibility in the development and that’s really important. As a network operator we really need to control the way the system works … and instead of [taking] three baby steps it needed one giant step forward and as you know we basically said we are going to skip our second generation modem technology and we are going right to third generation and based on the latest and greatest industry standards, DVB-S2X, and what that allows us to do is access far more megahertz in one modem so that you can deliver more capability to that customer. In this market it is not just more megahertz but it is also about how efficiently you can translate megahertz to megabits. It’s super important particularly on transmit so you don’t interfere with adjacent satellites. In today’s world you have got to spread dramatically, and super efficiently.
So we won’t be seeing Panasonic go direct in business aviation? Or will we?
DB: Well you never say never, but I really don’t see that happening and not for a long time.
Inmarsat says the same; it says that whilst the firm will go direct to commercial where it makes sense, it has no plans of doing it in business aviation. They honor those relationships.
DB: And not to mention these guys [SD] are a powerhouse and that’s why we are working with them. It’s really to take advantage of their presence in the marketplace and great customer service and, in working through this for the last year, we’ve gotten to know each other very well. And this is the beginning of the relationship; it’s not the relationship, it’s just the beginning. We have a lot of plans and things we are going to do that are going to help this marketplace; to deliver new solutions, new capabilities and that’s, you know, that’s what we like to do. We cannot be second best. We have to be best in class…
Just back again to this interview I had with Inmarsat, the firm sees an opportunity to displace the Gogo Biz ATG system on business aircraft in the US. Do you see opportunities to displace ATG as well?
DB: Oh yes. I think, there is a lot to this issue and normally I would say [we’d focus on] an area where there is not air-to-ground, but I think we are reaching a point – as we look even three or four years down the road – there will be new technology in this marketplace that will make it as easy to install and as lightweight as an air-to-ground system … but works everywhere and gives massively better performance because there is much more capacity. Part of our responsibility here is to keep driving this product and service [forward]. One way is you saw our announcements with SES relative to SES-14 and SES-15 next year [which] brings in, on top of our Intelsat 29e Epic capacity, that massive additional capacity. In 2020 that will augmented with additional capacity from our extreme throughput satellite and that will be announced before the end of the year.
Before the end of the year?
DB: Before the end of the year. So the North American [segment] of this market is going to drive competition. There isn’t going to be any reason why you [would] still be operating in air-to-ground. ATG just won’t have the capability that you are going to have with this kind of satellite system. Maybe [ATG] is better than some satellite systems but it won’t be better than this satellite system. We want to do it everywhere but in really dense areas like North America, and Europe to the Middle East that have lots of business aviation traffic [and] there is also lots of commercial traffic. Those are areas where you really start to see the differentiation because it won’t be just for the class of aircraft that are the bigger, [large cabin] heavy aircraft like Gulfstreams and the Bombardier Global Express aircraft, it will be smaller aircraft.
Really, everything? Even helicopters down the road?
DB: Some of these things we do today and we can do it through Iridium right? A tiny little radio works everywhere in the world – terrific. [The] new Iridium NEXT constellation coming out is going to give it even greater capability but we really see these two as complementary [Iridium NEXT L-band and Ku]. We want to have broadband everywhere right? Iridium and even Iridium Next, not broadband but a great service that you pair that with our [Ku] service and we believe every aircraft should have both and so that’s my vision and we are going to go crazy trying to put this together.
And Iridium will essentially handle the cockpit communications and safety services?
That’s really one of the key drivers here. One of the reasons that we are kind of renewing our participation with them is because we believe it can deliver even more capability to team with our product to give whoever the operator is, if it’s a business jet or if it’s a commercial airline, having one set communication capability delivered through one supplier. [That’s] really powerful and that’s what we want to be able to do in a new concept that we are working on right now, [though] we are not there yet. But we want to be able to deliver reliability in communications and by packaging our products together, we believe that we can deliver that type of capability to airlines and business jet operators. And they all want it. It just doesn’t exist yet and so by packaging our services together, our systems, the technology, the hardware and the service now you’ve got something that just is really going to excite this marketplace.
You’ve said in the past that your work with Astronics AeroSat could get you to a regional jet specific solution that might be viable for that market. But I guess the temperature for a tail mounted solution is a little bit different? Airlines are not quite banging down the door for the tail mounted antenna, or are they open to it?
DB: I think there is a lot of interest and the issue is simply this is brand new … Right now we are promoting this from a business jet standpoint; those are the same aircraft. They are used for the high end of the business jet market, also the regional market and that’s what we would put on there, so it opens up another segment of the market for us …
From a commercial airline standpoint, at the recent APEX Expo in Singapore, Panasonic made a significant number of announcements. I know you guys are sitting on quite a number of airline partnerships that have not been announced. When will some of these be announced?
DB: Well it was almost a problem this year with too many announcements but there is so much going on and one of the reasons for that is broadband service has unlocked a couple of other things, like real-time advertising updates, providing custom advertisements that are market specific or time limited [though Panasonic’s new Captify service]; you could change those on the spot through our network and so these things just change the marketplace and they were basically kind of turned loose by connecting it with our broadband service. So there are a few things like that – ZeroTouch – that just simply, it’s time had come; it had to happen. It was really good at APEX because you got some of the same individuals at the airlines that have thought about this capability of “how do I update media on my aircraft”, you know, and “I don’t want to wait every 30 days to do this”. It breaks the licensing and production and delivery cycle for movies, even feature films or early window and it just dramatically changes the business.
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