Airbus slide announcing MoU with Hughes to be a Ka-band MSP under HBCplus at AIX 2024

Managed service pedigree drives Hughes IFC gains including at Airbus


HAMBURG — Having already burst onto the aero ISP scene as a direct inflight connectivity provider to Delta Air Lines, Hughes Network Systems’ momentum in commercial aviation continued at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, where Airbus announced a memorandum of understanding to add Hughes as a Ka-band managed service provider (MSP) for its groundbreaking linefit, supplier-furnished HBCplus program.

“Besides this MoU, Airbus and Hughes continue to explore partnership opportunities for other connectivity architectures & services (including Ku-band),” Airbus stated teasingly in a published statement. Hughes is, after all, a distribution partner for Eutelsat OneWeb’s Ku-band Low Earth Orbit (LEO) aero service, which is expected to be available this fall.

Subject to a final contract with Airbus, Hughes will join the four other MSPs in Airbus’ HBCplus catalogue: in the Ka-band, Viasat and SES (Emirates is slated to launch Ka HBCplus with Viasat as MSP this year); and in the Ku-band, Panasonic and Intelsat (the latter is being acquired by SES).

It might seem like another profound ‘zero to sixty’ moment for the EchoStar subsidiary, which only last year announced its intention to serve the commercial aviation market directly, revealing three distinct antenna terminal solutions to accommodate that market-entry. But for Hughes senior vice president Reza Rasoulian, there are clear reasons why the Germantown, Maryland-headquartered satellite operator is enjoying such traction.

How did this all transpire, RGN asked him at AIX?

“The passenger. I think that is the easiest answer, the most straightforward answer. We see a lot of demand as we’re having more and more airline conversations. They love what we’ve done; obviously the Delta relationship was announced in November. We’re executing very well. Delta is a great partner; they tested us extensively, as Paul [Gaske] and Glenn [Latta] mentioned on stage at the Satellite show before they made that decision. And it’s just been an incredible, incredible partnership.

“So, we felt that it was important to also have an option at Airbus. The HBCplus program worked really nicely into our fabric approach with the [Hughes] Jupiter In-flight solutions, with GEO Ka-band high-density capacity today, with a path to LEO in the future. And you know, I think it just made sense for us to move in that direction. And frankly, I think it’s important to note all the managed services pedigree that Hughes has is one of the key tenets of what we’ve done. I’ve been on so many flights where I get frustrated personally. There’s close to 10,000 connected aircraft, more or less, right now. And sometimes it’s really great and a lot of times it’s not that great. And it’s a shame … as a traveler, as a passenger. “

He continued, “So, we’ve just flipped it and when we’ve talked about the reinvention of IFEC, that’s what we mean. It doesn’t have to be bad. We’ve worked to perfect the ground segment side; we’ve been doing self-healing networks for quite some time now. Everyone talks about AIML [artificial intelligence markup language]; we actually do it at scale today in the ground. We’re doing it in the air too. And I think that is what’s very unique, where you have a fully managed system that machines are looking over to make sure that the passenger has a good experience.”

Being part of HBCplus has other benefits including for Hughes’ airline customers. Under the program, Airbus effectively takes ownership of the antenna hardware as part of the aircraft (with Safran Passenger Innovations providing the terminals for Ka-band and Ku-band). And Rasoulian noted that a lot of Hughes’ potential airline customers have Airbus aircraft on order. Moreover, he said, “we think the HBCplus program is a great way to minimize downtime, minimize retrofit time.”

And this way we create a hybrid solution where we can do retrofits for an airline and we have a linefit product, basically a linefit solution that is easy. We just try to make it easy.

Here, Rasoulian is referring to the ThinKom Solutions Ka2517 VICTS antenna, which SPI selected for the terminal that will support the Ka-band side of HBCplus, and which is part of the cadre of retrofit IFC solutions now offered by Hughes to the market. Hughes is also offering a more petite version of the kit for small narrowbodies and regional jets, ThinKom’s Ka1717 (developed with CarlisleIT), which is being rolled out at Delta Air Lines. So effectively, from a hardware and service standpoint, Hughes is able to provide a similar retrofit solution to airlines that select linefit Ka-band IFC under Airbus HBCplus, ensuring they have a level of consistency across their fleet.


In terms of continued discussions with Airbus about other future catalogue opportunities, Rasoulian noted that in addition to being a Eutelsat OneWeb LEO service distribution partner in aero, Hughes also has Ku-band geostationary (GEO) capacity. “So we’re happy to do Ku-band as well.” For the Ku-band side of HBCplus, SPI’s terminal is based on a dual-beam electronically steered antenna (ESA) from Get SAT, which has been acquired by Thales.

“[O]ur number one goal is to make sure that we provide the best connectivity at scale to the passenger and truly provide airlines options. And over multiple frequency bands, it’s really the service layer that’s the secret sauce, so the capacity is also important but you know whether it’s Hughes capacity or one of our close partners, you know we basically work with pretty much all the major satellite operators out there. So, we’re very open and the secret sauce is the managed service.”

Another factor working in Hughes‘ favor, said Rasoulian, is the fact that: “We don’t have the baggage and frankly, we’re very open. You know, when some customers talk to us, they’re always curious, saying. ‘Oh, talk to us about your SLAs.’ And we have no problem talking about SLAs. They ask, ‘oh, well, what if we want to have an independent kind of view [a separate entity testing the QoE on board]? And it’s like, ‘wow, I’m so sorry that you have to have an independent view. You know, we’re happy if you want to do that, but we’re very open. So, we are sharing what the environment is and look, if it’s a bad service, we are going to fix it. We aspire to have an awesome service every single flight, every single passenger.

“What I’d also say is again, back to why Hughes is unique, we’ve been supporting the industry for almost two decades. So, we truly understand the ground system, we truly understand the satellite systems. We really end-to-end have [that]… I’m really humbled to be a part of such an amazing team at Hughes that is able to deliver this connectivity at scale. Frankly I think that is really the secret sauce. And you know, I realize others have come to market and are trying. We can’t underestimate what it takes to provide a reliable service. It’s not just about the satellite capacity. It’s everything that’s happening on board and how you triage troubleshoot.”

With Hughes on the march in IFC, the competition is getting fierce. Hughes is up against vertically integrated satellite operators Viasat and Intelsat plus LEO-based Starlink. SES is coming on strong as well, having been tapped as MSP by a single-aisle aircraft operator for hybrid MEO/GEO inflight connectivity under Airbus’ HBCplus. Panasonic Avionics is also a key player on the international IFC scene.