ThinKom Solutions Ka1717 antenna mounted to a wall.

ThinKom on unsticking airlines with a sticky multi-orbit antenna


In the last five years, several high-profile geostationary (GEO) satellite anomalies have strengthened the value proposition for multi-orbit, multi-constellation connectivity, including for the mobility market of civil aviation.

When you consider the 2019 loss of Intelsat 29e; last year’s reflector deployment problem on the ViaSat-3 Americas satellite, which has reduced throughout to less than 10%; and indeed the 2023 loss of the dual-payload Inmarsat-6 F2 asset owned by Viasat, there has been no shortage of disappointments in the sector. What are normally rare events suddenly seem alarmingly more common, perhaps especially for satellite insurers.

But these are by no means the totality of recent challenges faced by satellite operators. In August 2023, SpaceNews reported that SES was investigating an electrical issue involving its initial O3b mPOWER Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) communications satellites. In its annual report, released February 2024, SES confirmed that the anticipated operational life and available capacity of its initial O3b mPOWER satellites “will be significantly lower than previously expected” and that it plans to upgrade remaining satellites already under manufacture and add two more satellites to the constellation for a total of 13.

Intelsat and Viasat are already significant aero ISPs to airlines, each boasting thousands of aircraft tails for their GEO-focused solutions, the latter even more so after acquiring Inmarsat. Intelsat is also a distribution partner for Eutelsat OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) aero service, which is expected to be available from September. SES’s GEO satellite services, meanwhile, currently support integrators like Panasonic Avionics and Thales. But SES is poised to see its aero profile grow with O3b mPOWER-powered transmissions, including as a managed service provider (MSP) of multi-orbit IFC under Airbus’ groundbreaking linefit supplier-furnished HBCplus program.

Privileged to participate in an aero antenna workshop alongside several premier airlines at the Airline Passenger Experience Association’s APEX TECH conference in February, your author learned that some of the aforementioned satellite anomalies have been a wake-up call for operators, adding weight to the ‘resiliency’ argument behind hybrid multi-orbit IFC adoption.

It is therefore understandable why a growing contingent of airlines are now eager for the ‘holy grail’ of antennas to come to market, something that is multi-orbit, multi-constellation, low weight, low latency, high throughput, low cost, and simple to install, as revealed at the conference in Los Angeles. In short, they want something with staying power that can talk to here-and-now satellites and future constellations in various orbits.

But even as a bevy of RFIs hit the market for multi-orbit IFC — and a bevy of antenna suppliers seek to facilitate them — airlines are also exercising caution. Some are wary about adopting the next shiny thing.

“We think from an airline decision-making process it’s really scary because you have all these different frequency bands — LEO, MEO and HEO in addition to GEO – and what if you make a mistake? Because this is a commitment, right? It’s not a ‘well we’ll put it on today and take it off tomorrow’ situation; it’s a long term commitment, it’s a marriage to the system and what if, a couple years in, passengers aren’t happy and your boss is asking you ….’why did we make that decision to go with that system?’ So we are trying to ease that,” ThinKom Solutions chairman and CEO Bill Milroy told airlines and others attending APEX TECH in Los Angeles.

But how?

ThinKom’s low-profile ThinAir VICTS antenna hardware, which already supports IFC on Inmarsat-now-Viasat’s GEO-focused nextgen Global Xpress installs (GX will soon introduce a HEO component for polar coverage), Thales’ high-capacity Ka-band FlytLIVE solution in North America, and other IFC integrators — and which is playing a key role in Hughes Network Systems’ aero ISP market entry with Delta Air Lines  — is in fact multi-orbit capable.

For example, airlines can choose the VICTS hardware as part of Safran Passenger Innovations’ HBCplus terminal for Airbus, and power connections with SES as MSP for its forthcoming Ka-band multi-orbit IFC service.

Additionally, a new hybrid ThinAir Plus architecture sees VICTS accompanied by a small Hughes ESA under the same radome to support GEO/MEO/HEO + Eutelsat OneWeb’s unique requirements for its Ku-band LEO network, respectively. When Telesat’s Ka-band Lightspeed LEO network is ready for primetime — and with it the ability to support 800 Mbps down and 200 Mbps up, according to Milroy — ThinKom’s VICTS hardware in the world fleet will technically be able to talk to Lightspeed, providing the airline owner strikes a deal with the satellite operator for the service portion, and executes on an overnight modem change. No changes will need to be made outside the aircraft, noted Milroy.

“From a stickiness standpoint, the ultimate mission from an airline, we believe, is if you put hardware — hopefully ThinKom hardware, but someone’s hardware — on your plane and it’s future proof. So, what I mean is when it comes time to renegotiate your contract for service or services, it could be with a GEO or LEO [or indeed MEO] or both.”


This sort of flexibility — the ability to retain antenna hardware whilst swapping MSPs, at least those that play along — is the very basis of Airbus’s linefit HBCplus program. But the concept will also gain traction in the retrofit world. And, in the future, “you will have a software-defined modem and it will just be a software upgrade overnight, and you won’t touch the hardware and you will be on the new service,” noted Milroy.

Crucially, while there is stickiness in this approach for selected antenna-makers insofar as their product lifecycles are concerned, it effectively enables the airlines to be ‘unsticky’ said Milroy, noting that “unstickiness is a good thing from an airline standpoint.”

Directly addressing airlines at APEX TECH, he added in reference to ThinKom’s pitch:

If you are in favor of being unsticky we want to do our best to unstick you.

From a cost standpoint, RGN asked if it makes sense for airlines to enter rip-and-replace programs, replacing Gen 1 GEO-only IFC systems with multi-orbit solutions that can offer this sort of unstickiness, and the ability to swap LEO/MEO/GEO services simply through a fresh service contract and a modem swap, as they see fit?

“There is definitely a lot of friction and a lot of capital expense that goes with making a change of the hardware, particularly what’s on the outside of the plane,” answered Milroy. “But we think the motivation here from an airline viewpoint is going to be this unstickiness, the ability to be able to always bring the best and perhaps the least expensive from a cost standpoint capability going forward, keeping passengers happy …”

He suggested that airlines “run the numbers” and look at the total return on investment (ROI). “[E]ssentially you are going to do a net present value calculation on changing the hardware out. You are going to have to foretell kind of what you think the cost of the bandwidth is going to be in the future and you know sometimes that can be a million dollars over the value of the equipment on the plane; that net present value could be a million dollars. So, a million dollars is something not to turn your back on and that’s something you might want to consider.”

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Featured image of ThinKom Solutions’ Ka1717 VICTS antenna, which will be installed on Delta’s 717s, RJs, is credited to Mary Kirby