Going indirect with GoDirect; Viasat sees value of partners in bizav

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When an announcement dropped this spring that Honeywell will offer Viasat’s high-speed Ka-band connectivity to large and mid-cabin business jet customers as part of its GoDirect suite of services, some industry observers immediately began speculating about whether this means the business aviation community is more interested in Viasat Ka than Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX)-powered Jet ConneX service.

After all, Honeywell and Inmarsat are long-time partners, and Honeywell builds the JetWave terminals for GX connectivity in the commercial airline sector and Jet ConneX in bizav, and acts as a service provider for Jet ConneX.

But the truth is that Honeywell has been positioning GoDirect as connectivity hardware agnostic for a while.

In an interview with Runway Girl Network, Viasat’s James Person, who manages business development for the firm, effectively confirmed Honeywell’s stated position, explaining: “We, as you know, have had four distribution partners for Ku-band [the Viasat connectivity service previously known as Yonder], and one of those was [value added reseller] Satcom1, which Honeywell acquired and renamed GoDirect.”

So a VAR relationship with Honeywell was already in place. Now, a growing number of business jet operators are asking for Viasat Ka either in standalone form or as part of the dual-band Ku/Ka shipset, he said. And some Viasat Ku customers are expected to fully migrate to Viasat Ka when global coverage is available.

“We have customers with GoDirect, [and are] happy to have another partner on board for Ka. We’ll have more of those partnerships,” assured Person. Indeed, Satcom Direct became the first VAR for Viasat Ka in November 2017, expanding on a relationship which already included Viasat Ku.

More broadly, said Viasat vice president, network services Jerry Goodwin, these types of distribution partnerships are important if you want – as Viasat does – to become linefit offerable with multiple business jet airframers (its Ka-band tail-mount antenna is now offerable on the Embraer 450 and 500 Legacy jets). So while Viasat favors a direct approach to the commercial airline market, it understands the value of partnerships in business aviation. Goodwin noted that Gulfstream “selected Satcom Direct as their preferred service provider” and Dassault “selected GoDirect as theirs”.

“So that alignment keeps happening,” he added. “It’s not exclusive, but it’s preferred so it if you want to get on those platforms of the OEMs, you need to have those relationships.”

Even so, the question about whether bizav favors Viasat Ka over Inmarsat Ka is worth considering. Are operators starting to gravitate towards one over the other?

Inmarsat – which has supported business jet connectivity with its Swift64 and SwiftBroadband products for years – has a bit of a head start. Since 2017, its Jet Connex service has been available with multiple private jet manufacturers.

But Viasat’s Person suggested that operators are growing more educated and “starting to notice that not all Ka is the same” and that Viasat is “extremely different”, putting massive amounts of capacity where people fly – “a couple orders of magnitude than others”.

Initial speeds for Viasat’s tail-mount Ka solution are expected to be 16 Mbps but Goodwin said Viasat plans to “double down on that” and fully “double those speeds” as ViaSat-3 comes online.

OEMs and flight departments are stepping up, [saying] “you mean that on JetBlue is Viasat [connectivity]? I want that on my bizjet too.”

As to whether Jet ConneX has benefitted from the positive narrative surrounding Viasat’s own high-capacity Ka, it is probably fair to say that there has been some confusion in the market. Your author has observed some curious wording in Lufthansa Technik’s press releases, which suggest the MRO is installing “the fastest Internet connection on board” in the form of Ka, but does not specify the solution.

When Lufthansa Technik announced it would be the first company to fit the Boeing 747-8 with Ka Internet, RGN asked: “Is there a reason why Lufthansa Technik isn’t specifying the type of Ka connectivity it is installing in its press releases?”

A Lufthansa Technik spokeswoman responded: “Lufthansa Technik has been working with just about all experienced satcom/connectivity providers (starting with CBB about 14 years ago). We are still today working with all providers. Since the Inmarsat GX program is of significant size, we have worked with Inmarsat very closely and do consider Inmarsat a great partner. The very successful execution of the current program puts both companies in a great spot to jointly deliver such products/services to further airlines outside the Lufthansa Group.

“Additionally, Lufthansa Technik is working with other providers on other campaigns, some known to the public, others not. Since many airlines tend to “pick and choose” the various parts of such complex programs, Lufthansa Technik tailors the respective offering to the airlines needs, re-using standardized packages and complementing such with the customization requested by the individual customer.

“Since Lufthansa Technik is able to deliver on big campaigns while tailoring the scope as desired by the airline(s), Lufthansa Technik is a good partner for any satcom/connectivity provider as such.”

Your author in March put the question about Ka connectivity market confusion to Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg, who responded: “I don’t know … there was a big tradeoff between capacity and coverage. If you look at the time when we did ViaSat-1 and then that was around the time that Global Xpress was being designed. At that time, just from a space technology perspective, you either could have a whole lot of coverage, which is what they chose because that was their business, or you could have a lot of capacity which is what we chose and we focused it in particular areas.”

ViaSat-3 is, of course, intended to solve the coverage problem. But another way people look at it, said Dankberg, is Ka versus Ku. So when framed in that fashion, “we and Inmarsat are sort of in the same bucket and I think some people do put it that way. A lot of depends on how you frame the problem. We try not to make it bands specific. We try to make it functionality, coverage, capacity.”

But while Viasat is touting a 16 Mbps service and the prospect of a future double-down with ViaSat-3, Gogo Business Aviation – the successful unit of struggling inflight connectivity provider Gogo – has announced plans to offer a 25 Mbps service with a new Ku-band tail-mount antenna, saying the service will offer a “significant leapfrog from what corporate aircraft have out there today”.

To be clear, Viasat doesn’t see Gogo’s promised product as a major competitor to what it’s doing with Ka. “It’s possible to do [25 Mbps] for a single plane,” said Goodwin, noting that Viasat has government customers “that get those kinds of rates on Ku, but you can’t really do that at scale, as you add more and more airplanes.”

He suggested:

It’s not cost-effective, unless the customer is really willing to pay for the spectrum. You just can’t get there. So, we run a network now on Ku, and say ‘good luck with that, you’ll have a hard time making it cost-effective’. It’s not an impossibility from a rate perspective. [However] with a 12-inch antenna, that would be pretty challenging but certainly you can do that on a larger antenna. The apertures we put on commercial airline [sized business aircraft], they are 18-inch effective apertures (not parabolics)…we can get those kinds of rates on Ku but it’s just not scalable.

Viasat’s Ku-band connectivity solution has long been linefit offerable at Gulfstream and Dassault, and is available at service centers for Bombardier jets. And it’s “just a matter of time” before these OEMs adopt the Ka offering, in Viasat’s view.

“Every OEM has their own timing based on what they’re doing, and their own view of maturity and when they want to jump in on something, so we’re taking them as they’re ready. Definitely, there is more interest suddenly,” said Goodwin. “It comes down to the satellite. The competitors have refused to acknowledge that the satellite really is the difference.”

On the satellite front, Viasat is not been without its challenges, though. It is making a major insurance claim on ViaSat-2 due to the anomaly affecting some antennas that support certain high-demand markets, though Dankberg assured that the coverage map is not affected, and told RGN that the glitch will have no impact on the company’s aero-specific plan, which is expected to produce a big chunk of Viasat’s revenue growth. Nor will the glitch encumber Viasat’s ability to secure more airline customers in North America, he said.

And while Eutelsat has opted not to invest in ViaSat-3, the present joint venture with Viasat covering the Eutelsat KA-SAT satellite – which is powering connectivity on SAS, Finnair, and El Al– is solid, according to a Viasat spokeswoman. All airline relationships being supported by KA-SAT through Viasat “would all be governed by the initial agreement” with Eutelsat, she added.

Given the fact that inflight connectivity is clearly a longs game, and that deep pockets are needed to play on the field, is Viasat seeing any knock-on effect from the negative narrative around the challenges in the IFC realm right now?

There is “some splatter effect”, suggested Person, but Viasat has been “a disrupter, we do things a little differently”.

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