Will Ka-band in-flight connectivity leapfrog Ku?

While Thales doesn’t come right out and say it, the firm appears to be now hedging its bets that Ka-band satellite-based in-flight connectivity is the wave of the not-too-distant future, and that carriers should think twice before taking the leap to a Ku-band product – such as those on offer from rival Panasonic Avionics and Row 44.

In a recent interview with RWG-FG-ATI (if you know what that means then you understand my reality), Thales’s highly-quotable vice-president of marketing and customer proposition Stuart Dunleavy said a lot of interesting things about Inmarsat’s entrance into the Ka-band market and why he believes the Ka-band business proposition holds a heck of a lot more promise than the Ku-band business model, which is marred by the failure that was Connexion by Boeing. Read the entire piece here.

But one of the most profound points made by Dunleavy is this:

If Ka-band-based in-flight connectivity “was coming in 2018 or 2020, we’d be having a different conversation but we are close enough to the same timeframe [as Ku] that, if you’re an airline, you might ask yourself: ‘Is it right to move forward with a short-term Ku solution or is it better to wait a little bit longer and have a much longer-term and more economically viable offering than Ku can offer?’”

Also of note, however, is the fact that Ku is nearly saturated in some areas, while Inmarsat’s Ka service, dubbed Global Xpress (nice name), will offer far more available capacity (even after factoring in Boeing’s 10%).

During my interview with Dunleavy, he pointed out that Panasonic “has been talking about Ku for five years and nothing has happened and the reason that nothing has happened is not technical, it’s the economics and delivering a package that enough passengers will use to make it economically viable”.

Sure Ku can deliver in certain parts of the world, “certainly transatlantic and potentially other markets”, notes Dunleavy, but it can’t do it for all routes. There lies a big ole Ku gap over the Southern Indian Ocean, for example, and in other spots. Alright, that alone might not be a huge deal.

We know that Lufthansa is gearing up to reignite Connexion via its Panasonic collaboration, and to offer Panasonic’s Ku-band Internet service eXConnect on aircraft not fitted with Connexion’s MELCO antenna (which I understand is a masterful work of engineering, despite it’s clunky size).

However, I do wonder if Panasonic isn’t going to take a step back in light of Inmarsat’s announcement, and consider bringing Ka to the Lufthansa aircraft not yet fitted with Connexion. Well, maybe not. Their timeframe for equipage falls a couple years ahead of Inmarsat’s Ka network launch.

But how about Cathay, its subsidiary Dragonair, Turkish Airlines and the other as yet unannounced new eXConnect customers? Should they equip their most highly-traveled long-haul routes with Ku now, and look to Ka for the rest of their fleets?

I’m talking to you too Virgin America, specifically Richard Branson, who recently claimed the carrier is going to over live television by the 2014 World Cup (um, if that is truly the case, you’ll need more than the Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-based mobile connectivity solution you’ve signed for Richard…of course, maybe you can do like Emirates did this year and simply show taped versions of the games!?!).

Aerosat recently pointed out that, from an antenna standpoint, the upgrade from Ku to Ka isn’t too terribly difficult. And in fact Aerosat is working on doing that right now (no doubt Inmarsat’s news has prompted EMS and others to consider the same).

But I wonder how the airframers feel about the latest buzz around Ka. I mean, let’s be real. Boeing is only just starting to wrap its head around Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband after spending a few years in the connectivity closet following Connexion’s demise. And Airbus only recently gave Panasonic the green-light to offer its Ku-band-based solution on the A350.

Last year Airbus warned the industry that a potential dot-com-like bubble could form if airlines continue to pursue higher-bandwidth airborne Internet solutions instead of taking advantage of the connectivity hardware that comes line-fit on all its new aircraft.

“There may be one or two passengers that want to download streaming media through the aircraft’s Internet connection, but we believe that the majority of passengers would be very content if they could use SMS, access their BlackBerry and use webmail during their journey,” said Airbus Operations vice-president cabin design office, Jonathan Norris at the time.

But a lot can change in a year. I know my needs as a journalist to stay fully connected have most certainly changed in the last year (I always keep my iPhone by my bed and check it just before lights out…hey, it has an alarm clock too! I don’t need therapy yet, right?)

When all else fails, and I find myself jibber-jabbering like this, I turn to an in-flight entertainment and connectivity expert, in this case Michael Planey. So Michael, should carriers hold off on Ku and jump on the Ka bandwagon just yet?

Says Planey:

“I don’t think that the economics of Ka band have been proven to everyone and that’s one of the important questions that everyone has to ask themselves. Inmarsat has announced a $1.2 billion infrastructure investment, not to mention the ongoing operational costs that go with that. Amortizing that kind of investment over a short term doesn’t seem to me to make sense. Obviously Inmarsat has many areas of operations to apply Ka technology to. It’s not just for airline passenger Wi-Fi service, but if I read their release correctly, it said they’re anticipating $500 million in annual revenue [five years after launch] and that seems to me an awfully aggressive projection and they certainly released absolutely no data to back that up. It’s simply a number they throw out there and people like you and me can talk about it. Nobody has released anything to support that kind of volume of revenue generation in any of the satellite bands of services thus far.”

But is the industry at risk of chasing bandwidth with Ka? Is it never bloody satisfied to settle on a solution, including Inmarsat’s own SwiftBroadband offering?

Says Planey:

“We’re not chasing bandwidth in this regard. I don’t think that’s what is holding people back and causing them to wait for Ka band. I think that the problem is still that the market driven financial performance [of current connectivity solutions] haven’t met the original expectations and may not for some time. And because of that, we’re just waiting to see. 

“This is very similar to Microsoft releasing vapourware for all of those years in the late 1990s when they were years between updates of their operating system. But they would release some [news] about what was coming in the next generation, which served from keeping people from moving from one platform to another. I think we’re seeing quite a bit of that in the Wi-Fi wars over the last couple of years. ViaSat is the prime example in my mind of [a firm] continually talking about a product that has not seen the light of day. I know that Inmarsat is going to launch their satellites, but I don’t know that they are going to have a commercially viable service in a timeframe that airlines who want connectivity can afford to wait on.”

So, it’s clear that while I like to ask questions in the headline of my blogs, I can’t always answer them. But perhaps you could shed some light on the situation. If so, please feel free to leave a comment, or email me at mary.kirby@flightglobal.com (yes, it appears to now be working, but you might also want to CC me at mary_b_kirby@yahoo.com just in case) or FB me or Tweet me or FriendFeed me or, heck, get really crazy and call me!

(Photo above from Squacco’s Flickr photo stream)

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2 Responses to Will Ka-band in-flight connectivity leapfrog Ku?

  1. Mushroom August 18, 2010 at 5:15 am #

    “Last year Airbus warned the industry that a potential dot-com-like bubble could form if airlines continue to pursue higher-bandwidth airborne Internet solutions instead of taking advantage of the connectivity hardware that comes line-fit on all its new aircraft.”

    Well, blow me down with a feather from a finch!!!

    Airbus shamelessly promoting their own connectivity solution!

    Who’d a thunk it!!

  2. Aletha Belden September 10, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    It seems like everybody is trying to sell things. the internet should be used in an ebay browser.

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