Alaska Airlines E-175

Alaska picks Intelsat multi-orbit satcom for E175s, in industry first


Alaska Airlines and Intelsat started off the week with a bang as the carrier revealed it will equip the Embraer E175s flown by its regional feeders, Horizon Air and SkyWest, with Intelsat’s new electronically steerable antenna (ESA)-based inflight connectivity system to support “streaming-fast satellite Wi-Fi” for passengers.

The multi-orbit satcom solution — which will replace the Gogo air-to-ground (ATG)-4 kit on these regional jets over a two-year period beginning in early 2024 — has been designed to communicate with Intelsat’s GEO satellite network as well as the new LEO satellites operated by OneWeb, for which Intelsat holds a service distribution agreement.

“With an additional $25 million investment, this upgrade represents a major step forward in the travel experience for our guests, enabling higher speeds and more coverage in the air, particularly across areas in the state of Alaska,” says the airline in a statement.

Given the multi-orbit nature of this new IFC service for the E175s, the carrier describes its arrangement with Intelsat as “an industry first”, which is a fair characterization given that GEO satellites have historically supported cabin connectivity on satcom-fitted commercial aircraft, and SpaceX’s Starlink Aviation-branded service, which is rolling out on hop-on jet specialist JSX’s smaller Embraer ERJs, is LEO-specific.

Alaska also notes that it’s the “first major airline to announce plans to offer streaming-fast satellite Wi-Fi on a regional jet aircraft”, a claim that could potentially be disputed. Because while the traditional gimbaled antenna architecture used for most current-gen, broadband, satcom-powered commercial cabin connectivity solutions does create some install challenges on regional jets, JetBlue has long offered Viasat’s high-speed Ka-band IFC solution on its E190s (incidentally, Brazil’s Azul offers Viasat Ka on its E195s). And more recently, Japan Airlines announced that it is fitting the E190s operated by its regional unit, J-AIR, with Intelsat’s 2Ku broadband IFC solution.

But we digress..

If Intelsat has its druthers, Alaska will not be the only operator in North America to adopt its multi-orbit ESA solution for regional jets. That’s because an estimated 1,400 RJs flying in the US and Canada carry Gogo kit with original EV-DO hardware from ZTE, and these are in line for upgrades as the Chinese hardware is phased out in line with US government interests. Plus, Gogo’s next-generation ATG service, dubbed Gogo 5G, is presently being positioned as “exclusively for business aviation”.

Having acquired exclusive access to Gogo’s ATG services for the commercial aviation market in North America as part of its deal to buy Gogo’s commercial IFC business, Intelsat reckons that most RJs in the region will opt for an ESA-based satcom solution.

“[A]ll these original EV-DO modems can’t stay here; they have to upgrade one way or the other, and that upgrade pathway could be to another ATG system, but I don’t think that will happen. So, most will go in the direction of an ESA,” Intelsat SVP, commercial Dave Bijur predicts.

“So we have 1,400 RJs in the US and Canada that need a successor to the original EV-DO ATG system and over the next couple of years, once that’s phased out, I think the airlines will have upgraded.”

SmartSky Networks, with its single-beam per plane, aviation-dedicated ATG network in CONUS, is also offering an alternative, and says it continues to be engaged with several airlines. The firm, which can provide its IFC solution as a standalone ATG option or in a hybrid configuration with satellite, agrees that the news about Alaska Airlines is likely a foreshadowing of exciting times ahead for the inflight connectivity industry.

“Satellite, whether old or new, has its place, especially when it comes to streaming content to an aircraft, though the return links still remain highly constrained,” says SmartSky vice president, air transport & digital solutions Sean Reilly. “That said, we expect contention to continue to be an issue. Even the flashy peak download speeds seen on some of the new systems will degrade quickly as adoption takes hold, especially on satellite constellations where terrestrial users are part of the equation for a sustainable business model.”

For its part, Intelsat believes its electronically steered antenna will also prove attractive for larger aircraft types, but Bijur notes that the reason Intelsat is “starting in this country and starting with RJs” is to address that acute need for an upgrade as US airlines move away from legacy EV-DO kit.

Gogo CEO Oakleigh Thorne tells RGN: “We have always assumed that Intelsat would want to get the RJs on to their own satellite network, so have not baked much RJ revenue into our long-term guidance. That said, we think our 5G product could serve the RJ market well, and as disclosed in our public filings at the time of the Intelsat transaction, if they do not hit certain revenue minimums we could partner with a different commercial aviation connectivity provider to serve the CA [commercial aviation] market with our ATG networks.”

Meanwhile, Intelsat has already installed and is flight-testing an ESA prototype on its own Bombardier CRJ700 testbed. The hardware is based on Ball Aerospace’s mature electronically scanned array technology and a modular design from integration partner Stellar Blu Solutions, the latter of which is “doing a great job putting all the parts together” for the CRJ700 flight-testing program, notes Bijur.

Parked CRJ equipped with Intelsat multi-orbit ESA. This image shows down the length of the aircraft, and the satcom antenna is seen atop the fuselage, looking rather slim and tidy.

Intelsat is testing the multi-orbit ESA on its CRJ700 testbed. Image: Intelsat

The first Horizon Air E175 is expected to be fitted in early 2024, followed by the rest of the carrier’s ERJ175s. Horizon is understood to be retiring its Q400 turboprops this week. Once Horizon’s fleet is equipped, the SkyWest E175s will be addressed.


Interestingly, Intelsat may be able to retain certain aspects of the ATG-4 hardware installed on RJs in the North American fleet when executing upgrades. “There are two flavors of ATG, classic and ATG-4; the latter has some parts that are reusable, and the classic does not,” explains Bijur, pointing to WAPs as an example of ATG-4 hardware that might be able to be retained in certain instances.

Some 90% of Alaska Airlines’ mainline fleet features Intelsat’s 2Ku IFC solution, and nearly all mainline jets will be fitted by this April, says the carrier, which charges $8 for Wi-Fi. As such, Alaska’s decision to tap Intelsat for multi-orbit satcom on the ERJ175s puts the carrier “on track to provide consistent streaming-fast Wi-Fi across our entire fleet by 2026”.

Sangita Woerner, who serves as the airline’s senior vice president of marketing and guest experience, says: “With the growth in remote work, we know staying connected at 34,000 feet is more important than ever. Intelsat’s new system will give our guests the peace of mind that no matter whether it’s a short flight or longer journey, there will be reliable, affordable and convenient Wi-Fi. It’s just another way we show care in the air.”

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Featured image credited to Alaska Airlines