Thales is optimistic it can provide certified avionics equipment to support superfast Ka-band satellite-based in-flight connectivity within a few years, and is applauding Inmarsat's newly-announced plan to offer a global Ka mobile broadband service - called Global Xpress - around 2014.
The in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) manufacturer's current airborne communications strategy centres around Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband (SBB) aeronautical service via L-band satellites. SBB can provide data up to 432 kbps and is used by Thales to offer 'connected' in-flight entertainment systems, Qatar Airways is among the customers to have signed on for Thales' latest generation IFEC with SBB.
Global Xpress, on the other hand, is expected to far exceed SBB's data rate, offering 50 mbps speeds. Serving as its backbone will be three state-of-the-art Ka-band satellites delivered by Boeing.
"What Ka means to the in-flight and commercial aviation market is not just important to Thales. It's important to the whole market. The entry of an entity like Inmarsat addresses questions and concerns that a number of leading airlines have raised over the last several years, ever since the demise of [Ku-band satellite-based] Connexion by Boeing. It addresses the need for a globally available, commercially viable, economically stable solution that provides enough bandwidth at the right price point," Thales vice-president of marketing and customer proposition Stuart Dunleavy tells ATI and Flightglobal.
Inmarsat's entry also means the market "has one provider rather than [having to] stitch together a number of providers around the world", he says. And with three Ka-band satellites slated for launch, complexity is "dramatically reduced" in terms of the handover between spot beams and the handover between satellites.
Importantly, since Inmarsat is launching Global Xpress for the maritime, energy and government/defence sectors, "the airline industry isn't going to have to stomach all the cost", notes Dunleavy.
Because Thales cannot know for certain when Global Xpress will go into service, the firm is holding back on prematurely announcing a Ka-band-based in-flight connectivity strategy. "There is always a certain degree of uncertainty. But if you listen to what Inmarsat is saying, they are using Boeing as the provider, so that reduces the development cycle, and it makes the target date of 2014 much more achievable than if they were building from scratch," says Dunleavy.
"That means that 2014 offerablity is clearly more feasible as well. We are very optimistic that Inmarsat can make this work. Also, as an avionics manufacturer and integrator as well as an IFEC provider, we obviously have a huge capacity through our UK and France-based system divisions to manufacture radios and antennas as we have done for the SBB solution. We're confident we can meet those [Global Xpress] timeframes with certified avionics equipment."
Connexion by Boeing service was switched off in the commercial sector at the end of 2006 after the airframer failed to create a sustainable business model for the Ku-band satellite-based service. One of the oft-cited reasons for Connexion's demise is the high level of fixed costs that Boeing had to carry in leasing transponders to cover a global footprint.
Since that time, two firms have emerged with their own Ku-band connectivity solutions to fill the void left by Connexion - Thales' rival Panasonic Avionics and US-based Row 44.
Panasonic has secured several deals for its Ku-band offering, including with former Connexion customer Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Lufthansa has begun flight-testing the service in preparation for re-launch by the end of the summer. Row 44 is in the process of equipping Southwest Airlines' fleet with its Ku solution. To keep fixed costs down, service providers are now applying for only the data they use.
But Dunleavy believes a move to Ka-band-based in-flight connectivity instead of Ku will be worth the wait. "If it 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?'"
As Thales keeps a keen eye on the progress of Global Xpress, the company will continue to offer its SBB-based IFEC solutions to airlines.
"Carriers don't need to hold back. SBB is available right now. We are installing SBB on a number of different airlines as we speak and it delivers a different kind of capability and that enables a different kind of passenger product, but that still has tremendous value to the airlines. With intelligent design, we can offer a product today that can scale in the future. SBB is an investment that can be made without betting the farm on it. There is known pricing and known models. It's not going away so an airline can offer connectivity today. The question is - what is the right upgrade path to the next evolution in bandwidth, cost and capacity and clearly 'K' is the right way to go. Is Ku right or is Ka going to eclipse that and be the right long-term solution for airlines?"
(For more news about in-flight entertainment and connectivity, check out Flightglobal's Runway Girl blog.)