Demand for in-flight connectivity on Asia-Pacific routes may have been slower to catch on than in North America and Europe, but the market is ramping up fast, prompting service providers to sign up for as much capacity as they can get on satellites positioned to cover the region.

A recent survey conducted by Inmarsat and market research firm GfK found that 90% of Asia-Pacific airline passengers would like to have access to on-board connectivity, and two-thirds would be willing to pay for it. But expectations are high and, according to the survey, 72% of passengers in the region “would prefer not to use broadband that is not of high quality”.

As satellite technology becomes more sophisticated and as additional capacity becomes available, in-flight connectivity providers are making ever bolder claims about the speed and reliability of the services they can – or will soon be able to – offer.

“Adoption of connectivity, for a variety of reasons, hasn’t taken on as much as in other regions,” says Inmarsat Aviation Asia-Pacific regional director Bill Peltola, noting that, as a result, the region now represents a huge, untapped market. “The pent-up demand in the Asia-Pacific region is probably even greater than in the USA and Europe, because smartphone populations and usage outstrip the rest of the world.”

South Korea, for example, has “one of the highest [smartphone] penetrations” in the world and some of the fastest terrestrial internet connection speeds, meaning that “expectations are high”, says Peltola.

Inmarsat believes that its Ka-band Global Xpress (GX) satellite network is better suited than rival Ku-band services to meet demand and expectations across the region, “by virtue of the vast geographical expanse of the Asia-Pacific and all of the ocean”, says Peltola. Ku-band operators, he adds, “tend to focus their satellite energy on populated areas, but our philosophy is different”.

One of the region’s biggest players, Singapore Airlines, has decided to split the difference and adopt an in-flight connectivity strategy that leverages both satellite band options. The carrier signed an agreement last year with SITAOnAir for connectivity services using Inmarsat’s GX network, and this year struck a deal with Panasonic Avionics for its Ku-band-based eX3 in-flight entertainment and connectivity system.

The carrier already had an agreement with SITAOnAir for its Inmarsat L-band SwiftBroadband service but it is “now ready to make the move” to the GX service, says Peltola.

To date, wi-fi is available on 48 of Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A380, A350 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, with SITAOnAir available on 35 aircraft and Panasonic on 13, the carrier says. “We have two service providers for commercial and strategic reasons which we are not able to share in detail,” it adds.

David Bruner, vice-president of Panasonic’s Global Communications Services division, agrees that demand for in-flight connectivity in Asia-Pacific has surfaced “probably a little later … relative to other regions of the world”, but this has resulted in a “faster rate of growth” in the market.

“From Japan to Korea to China to southeast Asia, [airlines are] all moving forward. There’s a little bit of catch-up going on in equipping all the aircraft in their fleets, but they’re hard at it now,” he says.

The challenge now is the sheer number of aircraft that will need to be equipped with connectivity over the coming decade. “There are more aircraft going into Asia than anywhere in the world,” says Bruner, adding that Panasonic aims to equip 12,000 aircraft worldwide by 2025. So far, it has installed its connectivity solution on just over 1,000 aircraft.

Another big challenge is securing enough satellite capacity to meet soaring demand for in-flight connectivity in the Asia-Pacific region. In June, Panasonic booked additional capacity on Eutelsat’s 172A satellite to deliver broadband connectivity to commercial airlines over the Pacific Ocean region, having “outgrown” its existing capacity.

Panasonic has also secured future capacity on Eutelsat’s 172B high-throughput Ku-band satellite, which will be launched next April. This higher-capacity satellite will “dramatically change the experience for the Pacific and all down the Pacific rim,” says Bruner, but discussions are already taking place to secure additional satellite capacity for the region.

“We’re now making a decision on an extreme-throughput satellite. We’re in final negotiations on a new satellite and we hope to sign a contract by the end of the year,” says Bruner, adding that this is due to be launched in 2019. “We need more capacity along the coast of China down to Hong Kong and that decision is being made right now. We’re going to exhaust capacity here very quickly. Today we have good service – when we have this, we will have great service. It’s a big step forward.”

Intelsat is also increasing the throughput of its satellites to meet burgeoning demand – particularly in Asia-Pacific – as the company’s director of mobility product management, Mark Richman, explains.

“Asia is a very active market. It’s growing very rapidly,” he says. “This is one of the reasons why we’ve been pushing through with our high-throughput strategy. There’s been a lot of talk about high throughput – we’ve now launched and we’re focused on delivering services to Asia-Pacific.”

Intelsat launched its second high-throughput satellite, 33e, in August, and by early next year it will be ready to provide capacity to regions including Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean but excluding Australia. Capacity will be supplemented by an additional satellite, scheduled for launch in 2018, says Richman. These satellites combine wide and high-performing spot beams which facilitate combined live television and broadband applications within the same network, says Intelsat.

Panasonic and the US-based connectivity provider Gogo have already committed to use Intelsat’s new-generation satellites. Gogo signed an agreement in March to power its connectivity technology through a shared network featuring multi-layered Ku-band capacity on the Intelsat Epic high-throughput geosynchronous satellites, combined with OneWeb’s planned low Earth orbit satellite constellation.

Gogo says that by using this shared network, its 2Ku in-flight connectivity service “will be capable of delivering hundreds of Mbps [megabits per second] per aircraft over every part of the globe”.

High-throughput technology is “particularly suited” to the Asia-Pacific region, says Richman, because “air travel is concentrated over certain areas, so that’s where we want to place capacity”. He believes that Intelsat’s Ku-band solution is also more accessible than Ka-band services, noting: “Networks today for Ka are closed networks, so commercial access is a little bit less flexible than open access networks.”

The way in which in-flight connectivity is consumed by passengers is changing, and the Asia-Pacific market is no exception. Gone are the days when people were happy to simply pay one high price to use their laptops to access the internet on an aircraft, and payment plans need to reflect that.

“This is not what people are looking for any more,” says Peltola. “They’re looking for a range of prices and services. A large percentage of people just want to use messaging and social media on their smartphones and it doesn’t take much bandwidth to do that.” He adds that airlines now “might charge more for large files and video, and less for social media”.

For its part, Singapore Airlines has different pricing plans in place for each of its connectivity services. It has a volume-based charging policy on the SITAOnAir service on its A380s and selected 777-300ERs, including three price bands, ranging from $6.99 for 15MB to $19.99 for 50MB. The carrier’s Panasonic service instead follows a time-based plan, under which passengers can pay $11.95 for 1h, $16.95 for 3h or $21.95 for 24h.

The airline says it is “unable to share take-up rates”, but notes: “Our in-flight wi-fi services are popular among customers who need to stay connected while travelling for business or to surf the internet”.

Source: Flight International