Northern Sky Research

Airlines Beef-Up with Ku-band

Jul 1st, 2012 by Claude Rousseau   More from this Analyst | Profile

By signing a partnership with SES, GoGo complemented their air-to-ground network for airlines by ‘beefing-up’ their passengers’ onboard experience with Ku-band satellite connectivity.  This latest aero deal is just further evidence that Ku-band is rapidly becoming a core component of aircraft connections worldwide.

Indeed, the SES-GoGo partnership serves as the backbone for the recently announced Delta Airlines inflight connectivity service on board 150 long haul aircraft.  The deal is one important component of a Ku-band market that is certainly starting to blossom.

NSR estimated in its recently released Mobile Satellite Services, 8th Edition report that close to 4,300 aircraft are or will be outfitted with satcom connectivity systems in the coming years.  And the major player is Aircell, a subsidiary of GoGo, which after signing up close to 1,500 aircraft in North America is planning the next step to bridge the ocean with Ku-band capacity.  The market for this connectivity is not waiting for North American and European airlines to sign-up.  African airlines are the latest newcomers to have Ku-band equipment, and Row 44 cracked the market this past month with Mango from South African, which will equip all of its aircraft by the end of the year. 

Increasingly pressured by gloomy economic prospects, new aircraft orders, higher fuel prices coupled to lower passenger traffic on many routes, why are more airlines then taking up Ku-band connectivity? Can they not wait for more bandwidth and higher speeds from upcoming Ka-band high-throughput satellites from Viasat and globally from Inmarsat’s Global Xpress?

As the CEO of Mango noted about the Ku-band system: “In a highly competitive market where everything tastes like chicken, it's important to taste like beef.”  Thus, satellite-enabled connectivity tastes more like ‘beef’ to customers for airlines’ that try to differentiate themselves in an increasingly tight market.

Even Air France-KLM, which tried Inmarsat services a few years ago, is going for trials with Panasonic Avionics’ Ku-band services in 2013 on two B777s to, as they say, “…remain at the forefront in terms of innovations and mobile services”.  Fielding the system is seen by the airline as a first step in its strategy to offer in-flight connectivity solutions across its long-haul fleet. 

Not everything is perfect in the Ku-band world however as hiccups are the norm rather than the exception.  Southwest Airlines found a faulty sub-system in its Row44 systems and had to change it across its installed base of nearly 200 airplanes. The first trial on Mango also had problems with not enough IP addresses for all passengers’ devices.  Could it be that the frequency used is the problem?  Proponents of Ka-band HTS rightly think there is an advantage with an antenna similar in size to Ku-band but with more capacity available.    But to stay ahead of the competition, passengers today demand that their favorite airline have more services onboard.  

Many airlines tout slower L-band services already (about a thousand aircraft) but at a higher cost per bit, it is chiefly for texting, chats and quick calls.  The evolution to Ku-band thus addresses the need to offer travellers more capacity for their bandwidth-hungry devices. 

Finally, after years of preparation, the aeronautical connectivity ecosystem is not waiting for more satellites to be launched, but rather taking up the challenge head on and building more legs for the future.  Manufacturers such as Panasonic and Qest have production facilities that can churn out more than 20 systems per month and can ramp up to 50 in a short time.  Eutelsat, the 3rd largest FSS operator, just purchased GE-23, a satellite with Ku-band transponders built for airborne connectivity over the Pacific.  And the number one FSS operator, Intelsat announced satellites with HTS capacity in Ku-band coming in the next three years, with aero connectivity a key target application.

Bottom Line

In an increasingly competitive travellers market, airlines are looking to higher bandwidth solutions to add to the passenger experience.  As high-speed airborne connectivity becomes more widespread, Ku-band is helping airlines ‘beef-up’ their passengers’ experience to stay ahead of the game.