[Via Satellite 06-10-2015] The aviation industry’s need for greater connectivity is having a more prominent impact on satellite operators’ decision-making process as they evaluate designs for future spacecraft. Speaking June 9 at the Global Connected Aircraft Summit, several satellite operators expressed a willingness to ramp up the amount of capacity in orbit should aeronautical demand continue to climb.
“What we’re doing at ViaSat is trying to keep pace with those expectations,” said Meherwan Polad, senior director of business development for mobile broadband systems at ViaSat. “We know that usage in five years time is going to be many times the usage today, so you need satellites with many times the hundreds of gigabits that we have today.”
ViaSat provides connectivity to aeronautical customers predominantly in North America, but the company has reached over to Europe through a partnership with Eutelsat. The operator’s next satellite, ViaSat 2, is expected to cover seven times the geographic area of ViaSat 1 after launching in 2016, providing improved bandwidth economics over North America, Central America, and the Caribbean basin as well as a bridge of coverage across the North Atlantic to the U.K. and Europe. ViaSat 2 is the company’s fourth satellite, and others are planned to follow.
“We do very much have global intentions,” Polad added. “We do plan to have global coverage at the end of the decade.”
Likewise, Ben Griffin, regional director of aviation at Inmarsat, said the decision to build out Global Xpress (GX) as a Ka-band network leaves ample spectrum to further beef up the constellation as needed.
“GX is not just a three-satellite constellation,” he said. “We have a fourth being built. We have no hesitation to spend more money on others should we need the capacity to do that.”
Last month’s Proton failure had an inimical effect on Inmarsat’s rollout of the GX High Throughput Satellite (HTS) constellation, which was anticipated to reach global coverage by mid to late third quarter this year. Future Proton launches are currently suspended, further delaying the global completion of GX. The fourth GX satellite, Inmarsat-5 F4, is penciled in for a potential launch in 2016 with SpaceX. Griffin said Inmarsat will make a decision on whether or not to launch the fourth satellite, currently under construction by Boeing, closer to the launch date.
Operators cautioned that aviation alone is not a strong enough case for a standalone satellite. Similarly, operators voiced reservations about Air-to-Ground (ATG) system’s inability to serve other customers as a top factor in deciding whether or not to pursue them. Inmarsat is building an ATG network across much of Europe, and ViaSat has publically mused building one as well, but because such a system would be limited to aviation, not all panelists saw this as a worthwhile investment. The lack of homogenous regulations was another voiced concern, limiting the viability of ATG in potentially lucrative regions with dense air traffic such as Asia.
Steven Corda, vice president of strategy and business planning at SES, said the company has developed a simulator to show different flight traffic and take-up patterns, which then weigh into satellite design parameters such as coverage and spot beam makeup. This, he said, helps SES design satellites for a 15-year lifespan when the environment they serve evolves on a near-annual basis in some cases. Looking forward, Corda sees room for O3b Networks, in which SES has partial ownership, to play a greater role in aviation.
“As O3b continues to build out its orbit, increasing its coverage as well as the frequency in which it can serve particular areas, I see opportunities for covering certain routes at certain times of day dynamically then shifting back to other areas,” he said.
O3b currently has 12 HTS Ka-band satellites in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and intends to procure and launch more satellites.
James Collett, director of mobility services product management at Intelsat, said that Intelsat sees the solution to meeting the rising demand for In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) as a combination of legacy coverage through traditional satellites together with “lots and lots” of high throughput satellites.
“Where we lay down one high throughput beam we’ll lay down another beam and another beam on top of that. And because we are flying 50-plus satellites, and we are putting up probably three every year on a typical replenishment basis, we’ll choose to bring more capacity where the aircraft go,” he said.
Intelsat recently released a new service, IntelsatOne Flex targeting the aviation market that conflates Intelsat services from its current fleet, the soon-to-launch EpicNG HTS satellites and the IntelsatOne fiber network.
Collett cautioned that the bandwidth deployment symmetries between markets such as aviation and maritime are very different, and that operators and service providers shouldn’t assume designing for one market will easily overlap with another. Eutelsat America’s SVP of Engineering and Operations Vince Walisko said he anticipates Eutelsat Quantum, a high-tech software-defined satellite under development by Airbus Defence and Space and SSTL with help from the European Space Agency (ESA), will provide greater flexibility, though he admitted “it’s not the great panacea.” Walisko pointed to dual-band terminals as an area of notable interest in addressing bandwidth demand for IFC.
“As far as terminals go, one development I’m looking for more of is the dual band Ku-Ka because I think there is a place for both,” he said.
ViaSat is working on an antenna that can operate with Ku and Ka band. Polad said the company flew the antenna on a government Boeing 757 last year. Commercial release is planned for 2016.
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