This photo is of a Hong Kong Airlines Airbus A320-200 on final approach for runway 25R at Hong Kong international Airport.

Aerkomm taps ThinKom and Kontron as partners for new Ka IFC system

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Aerkomm Inc., the upstart inflight connectivity provider that is working with Airbus Interior Services to install its Ka-band system initially on Hong Kong Airlines’ A320s, is using ThinKom’s Ka2517 antenna and associated hardware, plus Kontron’s modem and server. And, while Aerkomm initially eyed offering a hybrid Ku/Ka system, it has decided to focus wholly on Ka with these partners, company CEO Louis Giordimaina reveals to Runway Girl Network.

The Ka package, inclusive of ThinKom’s antenna control unit (KANDU) and high-power amplifier (KRFU), will be certified up to the ARINC 791 standard, he says. But while Airbus has experience in installing the ThinKom Ku3030 kit (in support of Gogo 2Ku equipage on initial A350s for Delta), this is not the core reason why the Airbus relationship is so meaningful to Aerkomm. Rather, it is Airbus’ ability to deliver the full Service Bulletin versus just a basic STC.

Explains Giordimaina:

With a lot of aircraft being leased from lessors, the lessors would expect the Service Bulletin coming from the aircraft manufacturer. Plus, very few engineering companies can certify the whole system up to ARINC 791 and what better way to do it than going to Airbus directly?

He adds that the ultra-slim ThinKom antenna “gives us a very good advantage. We’ve already conducted tests at Airbus which actually demonstrates the antenna has practically got no effect on the drag coefficient of the aircraft once in-flight.”

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Apart from the retrofit solution, Aerkomm is also “actively in discussion with Airbus” to eventually offer the Aerkomm K++-branded IFC system as a linefit option. That work is not expected to kick off until the first retrofit system is certified on Hong Kong Airlines.

“Our timeline at the moment is that we’ll be installing our first equipment on the prototype aircraft, expected in Quarter 1, 2021,” says Giordimaina. This represents a slippage in the schedule of four to five months – a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis, he says. Once the prototype aircraft is fitted, installation on the airline’s other A320s “will start end of second quarter 2021”.

As previously reported by RGN, Aerkomm K++ is being positioned as “generic” Ka. It is not part of the Inmarsat GX ecosystem. And indeed, Giordimaina confirms to RGN that AerKomm’s Ka-band package will operate via the ChinaSat 16 satellite for Hong Kong Airlines. “Yes, absolutely correct,” he confirms.

He stresses to RGN that Aerkomm is “totally independent” and intends to tap into high-capacity Ka-band satellites around the world. “We are talking to various satellite providers at this moment, so [we’d] rather like to keep it generic,” he says, when asked if the firm has any interest in ultimately becoming an Inmarsat GX VAR.

Aerkomm has started to “very actively” look at European market, he says, and is “at quite advanced stages in negotiations with different airlines. But now we’ve also decided to start looking very actively at the US market as well.” The firm has already touched base with Boeing, he adds, though it remains focused on completing its first installation and certification with Airbus.

When it comes to Service Bulletins, Boeing “works slightly different than Airbus”, notes the Aerkomm CEO, adding:

But yes, the plans are we’ll also be focusing on the Boeing 737, the complete family whether new generation or MAX aircraft. Hopefully the MAX will not take such a long time to be back in service. And we’re also looking at other different types of models for Airbus and Boeing as well.

Aerkomm’s decision to focus on Ka IFC – versus hybrid Ku/Ka – is based on its belief that “Ka bandwidth is much better than Ku” and can facilitate a “working from home experience” for airline passengers. Moreover, he says, the hardware is future proofed to work via Ka LEO satellites. “They’ll have worldwide coverage by 2023. [The] download speeds and the broadband of the LEOs would be something that would be out of this world,” he suggests. The company plans to test over the Telesat LEO Phase 1 satellite.

A cooperation agreement inked earlier this year with Telesat “really gives us a good starting point with Telesat and as I said, having our equipment future ready for LEO satellite connectivity. But we would also be collaborating with Telesat for developing the Telesat LEO network …  the Telesat LEO network modem would be part of the solution,” says Giordimaina .

Aerkomm is following the JetBlue model for IFC. It wants to ensure airlines can offer a “completely free service” which is supported through sponsorship and advertising. It’s in discussions with various content providers, including the likes of Hulu and Disney, and others that might make sense as initial sponsors and advertisers, says Giordimaina.

…We want the passengers to experience extremely good streaming, getting work done without any interruptions as what I would call “in their own living room experience”.

As for Aerkomm’s growth, the company – whose staff includes COO Georges Caldironi, a 25-year veteran of Airbus – is “looking at employing more people from Airbus”, if individuals become available through early retirements or furloughs. “I’m not poaching,” underscores Giordimaina.

With headquarters in Fremont, California, Aerkomm operates a number of subsidiaries including in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malta, where Giordimaina previously served as CEO of Air Malta in 2014, as well as CEO of Lufthansa Technik Malta from 2002 to 2011.

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