Superfast in-flight connectivity on horizon as Inmarsat reveals $1.2b Ka plan

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Ultra-high-speed in-flight connectivity via Ka-band satellites is on the horizon for commercial and business aircraft operators following Inmarsat's decision to develop a global network of Ka-band satellites for its new I-5 constellation.

Inmarsat has commissioned Boeing to deliver three state-of-the-art Ka-band satellites to serve as the backbone of a new global mobile broadband service called Global Xpress, which will offer speeds of up to 50MB/s.

The London-based firm says it will initially focus on providing Global Xpress to the maritime, energy and government sectors. UAVs and government systems, for instance, represent a prime opportunity. To wit, Boeing has pre-committed to capacity purchases representing more than 10% of Inmarsat's target Ka-band revenues in the first five years after global service launch.

Boeing has also opted to become a distribution partner for Inmarsat's Ka- and current L-band services.

"The programme itself is $1.2 billion, which we'll spend over the next three years bringing Inmarsat Global Xpress to market. That includes obviously the satellite, the launch, insurance, but also the ground segment that will be integrated to create an overall network," says Inmarsat Enterprises senior vice-president Rupert Pearce.

Pertinent to commercial and business aircraft operators, however, is the fact that Inmarsat also sees "further growth potential in developing markets such as the aeronautical sector" for Ka services.

The timeframe for bringing Ka-band-based connectivity on board civil aircraft is unclear, as it depends on a number of variables, including the speed at which avionics are built to support such service, certifications, and the response of airframers and airlines.

However, in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) hardware manufacturer Thales has already made clear it is likely to offer a Ka-band-centred solution to market.

"We're pretty strong believers in Ka-band ourselves. We think it has a number of advantages that we see as compared to Ku [based in-flight connectivity]. We anticipate that there will be a very strong service provider behind it that can provide global coverage with a minimum number of satellites, a continuity of coverage throughout the world which Ku-band does not offer. So we do see it as a natural transition point for us in the future," Thales' head of in-flight entertainment Alan Pellegrini told ATI and Flightglobal at the recent Farnborough air show.

Inmarsat will continue to drive the growth of its L-band satellite-based services, including its fastest-growing product SwiftBroadband, which runs over the Inmarsat I-4 constellation and supports in-flight connectivity solutions on offer from Thales, OnAir and others.

"SwiftBroadband is the best solution for in-flight connectivity available today. With the announcement of the I-5 constellation Inmarsat has shown that we will be able to support our customers in the future when their needs grow," says Inmarsat head of marketing aeronautical business Lars Ringertz.

Inmarsat will also use the I-5 constellation to complement its existing L-band services "allowing us to offer unique hybrid packages using both networks, giving users unprecedented levels of resilience and reliability in remote and harsh environments".

Thales' main competitor, Panasonic Avionics, has largely focused its connectivity strategy on Ku-band satellites, and has secured several customers for its in-flight high-speed Internet, live television and Ku-band-based mobile connectivity. However, the firm is understood to be exploring its Ka-band options as well.

"With the Global Xpress network, we will be the first operator to offer global mobile broadband coverage, offering unparalleled speeds and bandwidth to customers in remote locations around the world. Global Xpress will be faster and less expensive than current Ku-band market offerings, delivered to smaller and cheaper terminals and be the first offered on a seamless, global, end to end basis with high quality of service. Picture 50MB/s services to a ship or aircraft and 10MB/s to an antenna the size of an [Apple] iPad (20cm)," says Inmarsat chairman and CEO Andrew Sukawaty.

Inmarsat is targeting $500m of annual Ka-band revenues five years after global service launch.