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Airlines seek guidance from Telesat on having more direct IFC control

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Canadian satellite operator Telesat is starting to have “interesting discussions” with major airlines around the globe that want guidance on how they can have more direct control of the inflight connectivity experience, company director, product and commercial (global) Manik Vinnakota revealed during a lengthy interview with Runway Girl Network.

Noting that some inflight connectivity stakeholders are eager for IFC industry consolidation, your author asked Vinnakota if Telesat is interested in vertical integration that would see it more directly provide satcom service to airlines, and if it might participate in industry consolidation/M&A activity?

Vinnakota delivered an unexpected response:

So, Mary, I can’t comment on our M&A plans, but I can comment on a related topic as to what is happening in the market as to service delivery to airlines. You notice that some of the big airlines are taking customer experience very seriously and they want to own and manage that more directly as a future differentiator. So large airlines are coming directly to satellite operators and asking how they could be in more control of the experience.

All of us understand there is a role and value that service providers have, but there are interesting discussions starting to happen, and starting to take off in a very big way, not just in the US. This is happening globally.

Telesat has always been involved in providing backhaul; we plan to do that with [Telesat] LEO as well. Now whether that is to an airline or a service provider, that is for the market to decide, but interesting discussions are happening.

Telesat has supported inflight connectivity for some time with broadbeam and HTS capacity. Panasonic Avionics, Gogo and Global Eagle “are current customers”, confirmed Vinnakota, and Telesat has had one-off relationships with the likes of Thales InFlyt and others.

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted some service providers, including Gogo, to seek concessions from satellite operators. Vinnakota said broadly that Telesat is working with its aero partners through these unprecedented times to help them figure out a way forward. He noted that the situation “is quite fluid” but that discussions are going “quite well”.

Given that Telesat is already fielding interest from airlines for more direct relationships, and the fact that some of its aero partners are seeking concessions to right-size capacity spend given the COVID-19 crisis, the time certainly seems ripe for a new paradigm in IFC. Gogo CEO Oakleigh Thorne recently asserted that the crisis has created an environment that will serve as a catalyst for consolidation.

Telesat Phase 1 demos deliver desired results

Telesat’s forthcoming Telesat LEO constellation of Ka-band satellites is considered by many stakeholders to be among the most viable and exciting of the prospective LEOs based on a variety of reasons, including the results of demos over the Telesat Phase 1 LEO Satellite. Indeed, both Global Eagle (which tested its Qest-made mechanically steered Ka antenna on its Albatross seaplane) and Gilat (which tested its ESA on the Honeywell 757 testbed) have had successful demo flights involving the Phase 1 LEO Satellite.

Vinnakota said Telesat learned a number of things from the demos. “It was very helpful to demonstrate the value of a LEO network, especially the benefit of low latency, and to improve the security of the links. You can do VPN links on it, access all the cloud applications, which is very important for the business class customer. So that was one important element to demonstrate, and then on the hardware side, it was good to show that there are existing antennas in the market that are LEO-compatible that can work seamlessly.”

Telesat also observed that the uplink to its LEO satellite is much stronger than GEO, boasting “three to four times more throughput”. Even so, Telesat does not believe that traditional, mechanical gimbaled antennas are optimal for “the throughput and experience we want to deliver to big aircraft” with Telesat LEO. “So we’re more focused at Telesat definitely on ESAs but also antennas like ThinKom [VICTS phased-array], which are a hybrid,” said Vinnakota. He added that last year’s testing of ThinKom’s Ka antenna over the Phase 1 LEO Satellite “went great”. It enabled data rates of up to 370 Mbps on the downlink and 110 Mbps on the uplink.

“They’ve done that with OneWeb,” he noted, in reference to ThinKom’s separate testing over the OneWeb Ku LEO satellites in orbit, which was revealed by Gogo’s Thorne, but which ThinKom itself has not yet confirmed. ThinKom is in talks with Gogo over their hardware agreements, after Gogo revealed it is seeking to delay the purchase of inventory associated with IFC system installs for airlines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quick, cold swap

Interestingly, Telesat is also working with ThinKom “on how do we ease the transition on existing antennas in the market to the Ka model”, with Vinnakota highlighting Thorne’s revelation that Gogo (together with ThinKom) has come up with “a smart innovative solution” to easily swap out the Ku antenna disks in its 2Ku solution to Ka disks should the need arise. “And we believe that is the future if you want high throughput. All the big systems of the future are all Ka-focused,” noted the Telesat executive.

Telesat is also working with other prominent aero antenna manufacturers – indeed “everyone in the market today”, according to Vinnakota –  to find the right aero ESA for its LEO network from both a performance and economics perspective.

The satellite operator has been developing the LEO network strategy for about six years, and during the last 2.5 years has worked “with all the key players in the satellite manufacturing space” such as Thales and Airbus, to refine the design. But when will Telesat select a manufacturing partner to build the rest of the satellites required for its 298-satellite LEO constellation? Vinnakota told RGN that Telesat is “very close to finishing the procurement process”, and that it will announce its chosen contractor “in summer 2020”.

Asked if the Airbus OneWeb Satellites LLC facility in Florida is being considered for the satellite manufacturing business, Vinnakota said only: “We are exploring all our options, Mary, to optimize schedule and economics so that’s where we are.”

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Telesat expects to start launching the LEO satellites in early 2022 and offer service in high latitude areas during that same year. Full global service “would be 2023 and that would align with also getting certified terminals in the [aero] market”, said Vinnakota.

Given that passengers will expect to be connected all the time in a post-pandemic world, Telesat – like Gogo – sees strong long-term prospects for IFC. “100%, we are seeing over and above, the user [activity] changing, with people wanting to be connected, plus a need for more information for operational efficiencies. You need to fly new routes that are not always planned so can you be flexible enough to serve changing demand priorities. So all of these put together, I definitely see a strong interest and more demand coming our way post-COVID-19.”

Telesat “remains strong in our premise” that the Telesat LEO constellation “is an ideal network”, he said, reiterating that this summer the firm will announce “a significant milestone that I know all our partners and airlines are looking forward to”.