In-flight Internet over Ka-band satellites could fly in '10: LiveTV

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JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV predicts that an ultra-high-speed, Ka-band satellite-based airborne Internet solution could fly as early as 2010, in a move that would give providers of Ku-band services, such as Row 44 and Panasonic Avionics, some competition in Europe and the USA.

The first thing to realize, says LiveTV CEO Nate Quigley, is that there are Ka satellites providing broadband to terrestrial customers today. "They are first generation Ka satellites. One of the famous ones is Wildblue, which provides broadband Internet access to as many homes as Hughes does today. ViaSat is launching a second generation satellite in the first quarter of 2011, and Eutelsat is launching Ka over Europe in fourth quarter of 2010."

Quigley says first generation Ka satellites today provide a significant baseline cost advantage over Ku band. "The Ku satellites have a 1 gbps capacity and cost $300 million or so to launch. The first generation Ka satellites, like WildBlue, also launched for about $300 million, but they provided 10 times the capacity. The next one that ViaSat is going to launch has 100 times the capacity of the Ku-band satellite being used today for Row 44," he says.

Supported by Hughes, Row 44's Ku-band broadband solution has been selected by full-fleet customer Southwest Airlines, and is currently being trialled by Alaska Airlines. Norwegian in Europe has also selected Row 44 for its Boeing 737s.

A competitor in the North American market Aircell has secured eight customers for its air-to-ground (ATG)-based broadband system.

"When we look at the offerings out there today, we think Aircell is going to run out of bits, and not be able to give enough bits to enough people on airplanes in order to provide enough satisfaction to people. They'll have to basically price people out of the market. Row 44 doesn't run out of bits quite as fast, but their cost per user session is way above what passengers will be willing to pay. So we think Aircell doesn't have enough bits and Row 44's bits will be too expensive," says Quigley.

LiveTV currently offers airlines a basic ATG email service called Kiteline, but it is studying Ka band, and believes that this network will deliver the cost and speed that is sustainable for an airborne broadband service in the future. ViaSat is also studying Ka for in-flight Internet.

Although LiveTV has not detailed its exact Ka strategy, it hints that an offering could be coming to market in the relatively near-term.

"Ka is not nearly as far around the corner as John Guidon [CEO] at Row 44 would have you believe. But they obviously want to position Ka as some future science project that will never come to life, and I don't blame him for wanting to position it that way but it is not nearly as far away," says Quigley.

He adds: "I just don't think anyone should be surprised if a Ka-band solution flies in 2010. I think when that happens, you have to pause and ask yourself - why do I want a Ku-band solution?"