ViaSat open to aviation partnerships as broadband plan advances

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ViaSat remains bullish about its plan to develop a global Ku-band mobile broadband network for commercial airlines in addition to business jets, sea vessels and land vehicles, despite a recent decision by German operator Lufthansa to end discussions with a T-Mobile-led teaming that included ViaSat, VT Miltope and TriaGnoSys.

Under a partnership with KVH Industries, ViaSat is in the midst of rolling out its ArcLight spread spectrum mobile broadband networks to a series of new regions.

"We'll start our broader North Atlantic coverage in early July and we're increasing our North American coverage as well," says ViaSat strategy director Bill Sullivan.

He says the ArcLight network in Japan - a first step towards offering service in Southeast Asia - is "up doing maritime trials" and regulatory work for aviation "is moving rapidly on that with support from our Japanese partners".

"We're continuing the rollout of all the regions. It is all going faster than we planned. We're still pretty bullish on it. We're offering our networking services to all the players in the market. I think you'll see airliners on our network eventually," adds the ViaSat executive.

The firm also remains open to partnering in the commercial aviation space. "If you look at what we've done in the maritime space, we have a partner, KVH, who distributes the service for us. In business aviation, we have Arinc and Satcom Direct, which distribute the [Ku-band] service for us. Satcom Direct distributes for our Yonder broadband service for business jets. We're open to working with an airline [directly] and equally open to working with channel partners for equipment and service," says Sullivan.

Two months ago, news that T-Mobile, ViaSat, VT Miltope and TriaGnoSys had teamed up to reignite in-flight connectivity on Lufthansa's overseas flights was finally confirmed. The partnership was an open secret for years.

However, shortly after this confirmation, sources revealed to ATI and Flight Global that Lufthansa had stopped negotiations with the group, and turned instead to Panasonic Avionics for the in-flight entertainment (IFE) manufacturer's eXConnect Ku-band service for passengers. Lufthansa previously offered now-commercially-defunct Connexion by Boeing's high-speed Internet service on overseas flights.

"One of the things to point out is the airlines have a comfort level when it comes to purchasing cabin avionics with known players in the industry and while T-Mobile is obviously a world-class company and communications service provider, they don't really have a history in the provision of cabin avionics for airlines. It was an interesting test [the pursuit of Lufthansa]. I don't believe the deal is done between Panasonic and Lufthansa but as I understand it, they now have the position we once enjoyed, exclusive negotiations status," says Sullivan.

Panasonic declined to comment. However, the company has disclosed it has already secured five customers for eXConnect.

Sullivan holds fast to the notion that "we will have broadband connectivity on airlines at some point pretty much ubiquitously". He cannot, however, predict when this will occur, noting that the economy and the health of airlines "will drive the timetable".

But, adds Sullivan: "We have the staying power to be there when the airlines are ready because we have this business model that spans across multiple markets. We're still growing. We're adding airplanes [business aircraft]. We're adding boats. We have trains in Europe happening, trains in different regions and mobile applications that we're pursuing. The main message for us is we're looking at all the opportunities and doing things to make sure we're there when the opportunities are right."