Iridium may yet make its mark in aircraft cabin connectivity

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Iridium is looking at ways to provide the aviation community with a seamless upgrade path to obtain enhanced voice and data services after it launches its second-generation satellite constellation.

The Bethesda, Maryland-based firm's current global constellation of 66 low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites supports voice services on aircraft, and for other industries. And, its new OpenPort service, which was originally engineered for the maritime market and can support data rates of up to 128 kbps, is being adapted by JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV to provide airlines with a cost-effective, pay-per-megabyte plan called Kiteline World.

However, Iridium's second-generation satellite constellation, called Iridium NEXT, is expected to provide data rates of up to 1.0 mbps, and opens up the possibility of supplying airlines with higher-speed service than currently on offer from the company, while retaining low costs, according to Iridium.

"The first and most important commitment we've made to our customers is that all new services [such as OpenPort] will be available on the new constellation," says Brian Pemberton, Iridium's director of project management, aeronautical and marine products.

"But what we're really hoping we can do is we'd like to be able to make the new NEXT services available with existing equipment. So if you have OpenPort today, when NEXT is enabled, you may have a software upgrade to your existing OpenPort and be able to get a higher bandwidth service."

Pemberton is working with Iridium's engineering team to develop this upgrade path. "We're working towards that and hopefully will deliver on that in the coming years," he says.

Iridium is targeting 2014 for initial launch of Iridium NEXT. Speaking to ATI this week at the Satellite 2010 conference in Washington DC, Iridium sales engineer Bob Blum said financial support for the Iridium NEXT project is expected to be announced mid-year.

LiveTV, meanwhile, is touting Kiteline World as "a truly global solution", with company vice-president of sales and marketing Mike Moeller noting at Satellite 2010 that Iridium is the only provider that covers the poles.

"I believe that LiveTV has a unique solution that has some additional capability to complement their television and I think they will be very successful with customers, especially air carriers that are looking for an all encompassing in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) platform for a very competitive price," says Pemberton.

"I know they are talking to several parties, discussing different methods," he adds.