Panasonic Avionics revises XTS satellite plan for aero connectivity

The future of inflight connectivity will come through a mix of broad-beam and spot-beam connections. That’s the message Panasonic Avionics Corporation (PAC) has been sending for some time, and indeed pursuing as partners such as Intelsat have launched high throughput satellites. But while the overall message remains clear, the specific details continue to shift. So it is not too surprising that in a recent conversation with David Bruner, PAC’s VP Global Communications Services, RGN learned that the upcoming custom satellite payload architecture is changing once again.

The company is focused on operating three eXtreme Throughput Satellite (XTS) payloads and three broad-beam payloads. But the six-payload architecture is now expected to fly on three satellites, each carrying one XTS and one broad-beam payload, rather than splitting the six. As Bruner explained, “We tried to match-make with different projects that are going on here and we couldn’t figure out how to get our payload on some of these other projects. We ended up just doing it all. We were able to coordinate orbital slots so the XTS payloads get teamed with the wide-area payloads.”

Getting to the revised design – three satellites providing global coverage – might sound like the Inmarsat I-5 constellation (or indeed the forthcoming ViaSat-3 constellation). After all, I-5 currently relies on three geostationary satellites to deliver near global coverage. But while Inmarsat is slowly adding to its Ka-band constellation, and plans to continue layering capacity, it is limited when compared to the Ku capacity already in orbit. ViaSat has some additional capacity in specific regions but the massive increase in throughput on each ViaSat-3 satellite is expected to obviate that need.

PAC will continue to access many other Ku-band satellites as the new payload program spools up; in short, its layering will be quite deep. And Bruner believes the firm will need the extra capacity. Indeed, he had strong words to counter claims that PAC no longer needs the six payloads or that PAC is wary about entering the satellite business, telling RGN:

When people talk about HTS glut they’re talking about multiple providers over key land mass. Most of them aren’t built for mobility. They don’t give the economics that we need.

He does not believe the aero/mobility market has sufficient capacity in place today or on the books for the future without these additional payloads in orbit. “There is nobody out there building solutions in these areas if we don’t cause it to happen.”

At the same time, however, the company remains frustratingly tight-lipped on specifics. So why the delay in announcing more details? “There are not technical issues anywhere but there are commercial issues. Everything is moving along fairly well. Two of the three are pretty much done. One of them is taking longer than the others,” said Bruner.

While PAC planned to release the details for all three satellites simultaneously, that now seems less likely. But Bruner did not commit to a timeline for any specific announcements. PAC has been talking broadly about XTS for years.

Bruner also spoke about the status of the company’s efforts to upgrade modem hardware. He acknowledged that the modem is a pinch point “on some planes at some points in the day” focused mostly on mid-day flights over the United States.

United Airlines is the priority customer for seeing its modem hardware replaced, and larger airline customers have started scheduling the replacement maintenance cycle already, in what Bruner described as ‘plug-and-play’ in a few hours.

He said more than 1,000 aircraft flying today are covered by an agreement to swap-out kit for the upgraded hardware. Between trade-in programs and extensions to existing contracts, the costs associated with the swaps are accounted for. The upgrades are expected to be completed within a year of the hardware being tested and certified.

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