Viasat sets sights on delivering IFC in and over Russia

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Viasat is eager to take a lead role in delivering inflight connectivity to airlines and business aircraft operators flying in and over Russia, and says satellite coverage over Russia is “a crucial link” to offering global IFC.

To further this goal, the company in February inked a memorandum of understanding with Russian satellite operator Gazprom Space Systems and Russian telecom operator TMC.

The arrangement gives Viasat the opportunity to access Gazprom’s Yamal 401 Ku-band satellite using TMC’s telecom license, enabling roaming over Russia for Viasat’s global airline customers.

“It’s also expected to provide IFC services on domestic flights within Russia and allow Russian and international airlines access to roam onto the Viasat global satellite network when outside of Russian airspace,” explains Viasat in a blog post.

Viasat is in the process building out a global Ka-band satellite network. While it offers a near global Ku-band IFC service for business jet operators, it has largely focused on delivering Ka-band IFC to airlines in regions where it can tap into high-capacity Ka satellites, whether its own satellites – such as ViaSat-1 and ViaSat-2 in North America and the KA-SAT satellite in Europe – or in partnership with another satellite operator, as it does for the Australian market.

It counts American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United, El Al, Finnair, KLM, SAS and Qantas among its growing list of customers.

Viasat has, in some instances, used Ku-band satellites as a bridge until its full Ka strategy – inclusive of its next generation, near global ViaSat-3 constellation – can be realized (it did so for Virgin America before the carrier was acquired by Alaska Airlines). The first ViaSat-3 satellite of the planned three-satellite Ka-band constellation is scheduled to launch in 2022.

Given Viasat’s decision to procure access to Ku-band capacity on Gazprom’s Yamal-401 over Russia, it won’t surprise readers to learn that the firm is in discussions with airlines about its hybrid Ku/Ka-band IFC solution, and has varying levels of commitments for the hybrid.

“We can do that with our current customer base or people that we’re talking to,” Viasat chief commercial officer Keven Lippert tells Runway Girl Network in reference to supplying the hybrid, which allows aircraft to send and receive data from satellites using both the Ku- and Ka-band frequencies.

The company is hopeful of making some order announcements for the hybrid this year, appreciating the challenges posed by the COVID crisis as airlines try to understand how quickly the market is going to bounce back.

Rotation

Would Viasat ever support a pure-play Ku IFC plan for an airline, if asked? Lippert reckons that it would “but I imagine it would be part of a bigger deal to go to Ka-band, with pricing and service quality commitments that would transition us to it”.

Ku-band in commercial aviation for the long-term wouldn’t give Viasat an opportunity to differentiate itself, he says. “We are doing it obviously in business aviation [with the service formerly known as Yonder], but I think even there, we’re looking towards transition to Ka-band.” With that said, Viasat does expect to support Ku-band IFC in BizAv for “years to come”.

One of the reasons why Gazprom and TMC were so excited about partnering with Viasat is that Viasat is identified consistently as a leading inflight connectivity provider, and, according to Lippert, especially in the future “as the leading global operator and people want to partner with us, because when those airlines do leave the country they want to be on the best network in the world…”

He believes Viasat has done a really good job in adapting to local partners and legal restrictions in various countries – Australia, Brazil (for residential) and China – to get a global network up and operating. Though COVID has impacted every aspect of the IFC market, including in China, we’re told to expect an update on Viasat’s work with China Satcom.

Says Lippert: “I think the thing that’s going to continue to provide us good footholds in these markets is the opportunity to be on our network in the home country…”

As a global service provider, Russia is a key market for Viasat given the amount of flight hours that global carriers usually operate over Russia (especially outside of COVID times). Viasat notes that Russia provides the shortest flight routes between North America and Asia, as well as between Europe and Asia.

With Viasat putting the plan in place to connect aircraft over Russian airspace, and with the existing relationship with China Satcom for coverage over China, “the day will soon come when someone can fly from Europe or North America to Asia with uninterrupted service,” says the company.

On the BizAv side, Viasat needs to develop relationships in Russia before it is really able to start selling service there. But there is a nice business aviation market to be addressed in Russia.

Ultimately, it is hoped that the deal with Gazprom and TMC will become “multi-pronged”, says Lippert, and extend into other mobility or emerging markets within Russia, such as trains and enterprise, respectively.

“What we’re contemplating is that in each vertical opportunity, it might be a little bit different,” confides Lippert. For instance, whereas Viasat would be prime in aero, TMC or potentially Gazprom could take a more prominent position in servicing non-aero customers, such as by providing first-layer technical support, he says.

An interesting part of the MOU is that Viasat, Gazprom and TMC will each maintain its own respective intellectual property and will operate its equipment using a secure, multi-layered approach to network services.

Says the Viasat CCO:

I think that’s important to the extent that we have certain customers that are sensitive to transfer of intellectual property to or from a Russian entity.

To the extent that Viasat is operating on a vertical where either Gazprom or TMC have experience – “oil and gas would be an obvious one,” he says – they’re not transferring any IP to Viasat either.

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