China market hots up for Inmarsat and Iridium cockpit comms

Chinese airlines’ adoption of cabin connectivity may be relatively slow going at present, but cockpit communications are another matter entirely, with Inmarsat vice president safety and operational services John Broughton telling RGN that China “is arguably the most active area we have right now”.

After announcing Shenzhen Airlines as a trial customer for its next-generation IP-based SwiftBroadband-Safety (SB-S) service, Inmarsat early this year brokered an agreement with China Transport Telecommunication Information Group Company Limited (CTTIC) to build a local SB-S satellite communication operation platform in China, which will give Chinese airlines access to a package that integrates Inmarsat Classic Aero and SB-S.

Inmarsat then set its sights on upgrading its satellite access stations in China. The pace of its work is decidedly faster than Global Xpress (GX) equipage in China “because it’s being driven on the back of mandates so there is both the voice and a reporting mandate in China which is driving the activity,” notes Broughton.

Also driving the activity, he says, is “the fact that Inmarsat is the only officially licensed network to operate in China. And then of course the usual thing, Chinese airlines are the same as airlines anywhere, looking to make more use of the operational data off the aircraft.”

Broughton’s claim is technically correct, though Iridium has enjoyed impressive momentum in the Chinese market with the aid of local partners, including Beijing-based Avitek which will be an Iridium Certus service provider. “The truth of the matter is Iridium is selling services, and has been for some time, to Chinese-based operators. The voice mandate and reporting mandate you’re talking about has been a major growth reason for Iridium inside China,” says Michael Hooper, the director and general manager of Iridium’s aviation line of business.

Hooper tells Runway Girl Network that Iridium is now in advanced talks with CAA China concerning how Iridium is going to be treated in China. “They are in the process of issuing radio licenses to all the Iridium-equipped aircraft in China,” he says, noting that several hundred aircraft are already equipped largely as a response to the aircraft near misses that occurred in Chinese airspace in recent years.

Linefit offerability remains boon for Inmarsat

Inmarsat’s Broughton stresses that SwiftBroadband’s ability to drive operational benefits is proving attractive to Chinese operators. “So a lot of these airlines are taking delivery of new aircraft like A350s and 777s; all of those aircraft are coming equipped with standard boxes that do Classic [Aero] and SwiftBroadband, both in the same box so it’s actually providing airlines an opportunity … As more and more of them put Ku or Ka-band systems on the back, it’s freeing up that SwiftBroadband capacity to use for operational purposes. So, that’s a significant subject of conversation in China as well.”

Having linefit offerability on widebody aircraft is obviously a big plus for Inmarsat, not only in terms of Chinese business, but around the world. “If you look at a 787 today, the 787 comes out with a box from our friends Rockwell Collins [now Collins Aerospace], which has got Classic Aero in it and two channels of SwiftBroadband standard on the airplane. Same with the A350. Most 777s – the vast majority – have exactly the same. So, these things are rolling out at a rate now of probably just under 500 a year both in various linefit scenarios,” says Broughton. “So, it’s happening on the airplane as a standard fit, without the [airline] having to make a separate hardware buying decision down the line.”

It’s up to the airlines – working with service partners Collins and SITAONAIR – to decide if they want to use the SwiftBroadband channels on their aircraft to support SB-S applications. But Inmarsat stands at the ready to assist with its Certified Application Provider (CAP) program, which certifies third-party commercial applications for use on the SB-S platform. “We’re helping educate the market and bring that to the table”, says Broughton. “But it’s really an opportunity for the airlines to say, ‘hey we’ve got something like the SITA eWAS service or whatever.’ We want to be able to run that in the way I think we’re going to see people increasingly doing – on a network segregated from what the passenger is doing for a whole bunch of pretty obvious reasons.”

World’s most modern aircraft sets dual-satcom standard

As first reported by RGN, the Boeing 777X will offer a dual-satcom solution for cockpit communications and safety services, supporting SwiftBroadband and Iridium Certus.

Is this the wave of the future?

“It probably is, you know? It probably is,” says Broughton. In terms of reliability, “the number of 9s after the decimal point that the industry is reaching for” realistically would be cost prohibitive to achieve “through any single system”.

He continues:

In addition, there are other things like mandates that if datalink disappears, you still need to be able to have voice and everything else and the only way you can wind up doing that is with two redundant [satcom] systems so there is going to have to be a simple voice capability that can be operated separate.

Now, HF is not coming off immediately, and remember the decision with regard to what system they will allow to operate in their airspace is a country by country, airspace by airspace region decision. And a lot of them for procedural and other purposes will insist on sticking with HF for a while. [Australia has been a notable proponent of HF.]

I’ve been in the business since the early 1990s. HF’s demise has been predicted confidently probably every year that I’ve been in it, and the 777X, the most modern airplane in the world, will still arrive with HF on it. But from a satcom perspective, I think the model of two systems on an airplane is probably one you’re going to see more of in the future.

Iridium’s Hooper agrees with Broughton’s assessment here, noting that FAA language currently permits airlines to use satcom if primary HF is not available “and that is planned to be changed in the springtime of next year – to change the ruling to read ‘two long-range communications is all that is needed’. So, that has opened the door, with Boeing and the 777X.”

The Boeing 777X will feature Collins Aerospace flight displays, a dual-satcom solution to transmit via Inmarsat SwiftBroadband and Iridium Certus (Collins is a service provide for both); and Collins HF radio service. Image: Boeing

IP-based HF in the offing?

Even when new widebodies come off the line with both Iridium and Inmarsat on board as a primary means of long-range communications, HF could remain the final redundancy for years to come.  “The FAA is going to put out their updated guidance in the spring. I do believe Australia will follow this in due time, in the next year. I don’t think HF will necessarily die or go away; there are regions in the world where they are currently installing HF systems and ground infrastructure for HF systems. HF will not just stop; it will slowly fade away from the primary means,” says Hooper.

Intriguingly, at the last FAA PARC meeting, “Rockwell Collins put forward their idea of upgrading HF to be an IP-based high frequency system, which would allow much faster communications”, reveals the Iridium executive. This would effectively reinvent HF to make it more relevant for the long-term future. “The fact that they’re talking about that recognizes that HF as it is today is really showing its age as the dinosaur in the industry,” he suggests.

Collins Aerospace could not provide immediate comment.

Rotation
Meanwhile, outside of Inmarsat’s already-announced agreements with Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines, and its work in China, where else will we see SB-S adoption?

“Well, you could infer anyone who is buying 777Xs for a start,” says Broughton, logically.

“So, I think the announced 777X customers include Emirates, they include Qatar, they include ANA, they include Lufthansa, so they’ll, as always, the linefit position is the key to so much of this business.”

His comment is a stark contrast to Inmarsat’s position on linefit offerability of cabin connectivity systems. Former Inmarsat exec Leo Mondale last year suggested that the focus is turning more to the qualities and capabilities of a system and less towards “the tactics of dates of offerability”, though one wonders if the company’s thinking on the matter has changed.

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