Aggressively pushing an inflight connectivity antenna that can support both Ku and Ka bands, and is being billed as “fully interoperable” with any aero modem, Gilat Satellite Networks admits that an inhibitor to enabling airlines to freely roam from one network to another network is the fact that service providers currently want “to keep their own closed system”.
“Like any service provisioning, if you look at the cellular market and stuff, all of those started with kind of very proprietary rights, networks. Somebody had CDMA, others were pushing GSM and if you had a GSM phone it couldn’t work on a CDMA network. It’s very natural for communication markets,” says Gilat VP of mobility, Michael Barak.
But as ground communications have evolved, so too must aero, he suggests. “The airlines don’t understand why they have to select one partner for North America, while flights that are flying out to Europe cannot use this. It doesn’t make sense to airlines. They are expecting that kind of level of service. And… the service providers now have to bridge the gap. They need to be flexible enough to adopt either multiple technologies, multiple bands, multiple partnerships” and ultimately potentially work together, says Barak.
“You can see maybe a consolidation in the market. I’m probably not the first one to tell you that. There will be a certain degree of consolidation in the market. But also from the technology side, where we are coming from, technology has to catch up. It has to catch up with the fact that people want to roam. If you are taking off from China, and you have a flight flying all the way to the US, you don’t really care if you have to pass through three or four different networks on the way, you just want to have seamless connectivity the whole way.”
But convincing service providers – with their own favored connectivity hardware and partners – to adopt a more open architecture approach is not necessarily an easy task.
The way that we’re working right now is we’re trying to work with everybody to have them utilize the dual-band antenna, okay. For example, ViaSat is … a valued customer. If they see value in my Ku/Ka antenna, there is some development that needs to be done to allow it to work with their system. They can buy the antenna, and the same for Panasonic, Gogo and for a lot of others. Okay, I am bringing a product to the market that opens up opportunities to the service providers.
Once I am able to do it with two or three or four different service providers, then we can jump to the next stage where maybe they can cooperate, maybe the airlines will make them cooperate because that’s what they want. Look, we are taking it step by step. We built the system. It’s flexible. It’s open to work with any service provider.
Gilat already has ties with its “fierce competitor” Hughes Network Systems, having jointly announced at the Satellite 2017 exhibition that the new dual-band antenna – agnostic to the underlying VSAT modem technology and service platform – would be offered by each firm to their respective customers, and enable continuous broadband connectivity for commercial aircraft traveling routes that require a combination of Ka and Ku coverage.
Barak tells RGN that Gilat is at the end of the development stage for this dual-band antenna. “We will start qual [qualification testing] this year. We hope to finish all our qual processes by the end of the year, allowing us to start STC towards the end of the year, December, or January next year. That’s the plan. We are already signing up STC partners. So we, Gilat, want to sign at least one STC contract, so somebody that will offer an STC path for the antenna, somebody that will come on board in the next couple of months, kind of prepare us and direct us in the right direction in the qual stage so that once the black label units are ready, which is December, we can actually start an STC certification so we won’t lose any more time …
“I think HNS are pursuing more or less the same path with their customers so they’re also trying to secure an STC customer this year so by the end of the year, when the first black label unit is ready, they already have a designated aircraft, and a designated partner and things will move relatively smoothly.”
In a perfect world Gilat is hoping major connectivity service providers will pick up its antenna. It is discussing it “with everybody and we have this niche of having a Ku/Ka system which is sexy to a lot of service providers”, says Barak.
And how does the Gilat dual-band antenna compare to ViaSat’s own hybrid antenna solution? “Technologically they are not much different,” says Barak. “The issue with the ViaSat system, first thing it’s very proprietary. It’s tied up into the ViaSat architecture, it can practically work only with the ViaSat system.”
“The second problem that ViaSat are facing, to the best of my knowledge,” he adds, “it is not a linefit system. It cannot fit into the linefit radomes. It could maybe fit into Arinc 791, but it doesn’t fit under, for example, the Boeing tri-band radome or the Carlisle one that was selected by Airbus.
“It’s not that we are linefit out of the bat, right, it’s not that the first [Gilat] antenna out of the development will be a linefit antenna, but at least dimension-wise, physically, we designed it to fit those radomes so that at least we have a path, we have an option to do a linefit. And every airline that you talk to in the end, they need a system that can retrofit but can eventually also linefit. So we have this advantage.”
ViaSat bats away any suggestion that the proprietary nature of its satellite architecture will ultimately hurt the firm. “I don’t really think it’s an open versus closed system” argument, says ViaSat director Don Buchman. “It’s really what are you buying. Would you pay ten times more for something that is open and you think you can configure it or would you pay ten times less?”
We make the decision everyday when we [as consumers] buy cell phones and we get into a carrier like Verizon or AT&T. It’s not that the phones can’t go back and forth – it’s like I could probably set up a radio system myself that’s way more configurable to talk to my family – but I am buying into the ecosystem that [goes] with the terrestrial 4Gs, 5Gs, and LTEs. And those are closed networks at the end of the day. So it’s really you’r making a decision as a consumer.
Gilat knows that modem development goes hand in hand with its push to support both bands with its antenna. Though Gilat is a modem provider – it built the new modem for Gogo 2Ku – and is “very proud of our mobility capabilities; we can work with an HMS system, we can work with an iDirect system or a Newtec system. And we can work with multiple systems. So if for example, if someone would pick up the glove, and develop a multi-modem system for aircraft, an airline could get a modman that has multiple modem cards inside. The technology is there right, we’re not inventing anything. [Somebody just needs to] tie the last knot,” says Barak.
He says, for example, that an airline “could take off from China using a Gilat [modem] system because Gilat is very strong in China – we practically dominant the base there … and then move over whatever ocean” and use whatever modem is deemed best, and “use our antenna in whatever mode it fits. If [the aircraft] move into Panasonic’s network, use a Panasonic network. I think this is what the market expects. I know we have moved in that direction at least on the antenna side.”