Besides Inmarket, the two leading contenders in the aero satcom market are: Connexion by Boeing and AirTV, the latter depending on a combination of new spacecraft and leased Inmarsat capacity.

AirTV's constellation of four S–band satellites – each with a total data throughput of 80Mbit/sec – is designed to deliver broadband data services to long–haul aircraft in flight worldwide, starting in 2004-5. Planned applications include live television news and sport, video distribution to airline ground stations for pre–departure loading, delivery of operational information updates to the flight deck, and passenger e-mail and Internet services.

The company's top management is here in strength, with at least one major announcement up its sleeve. Dick Stone, content and programming executive vice-president, says first airline tests of the AirTV system will take place later this year, over 12 months later than planned. Onboard hardware from CMC Electronics has been shipped to Saudi Arabian Airlines. Both the Saudi carrier (with a Boeing 747-400) and Alitalia (a 767) are committed to phased in–service trials, following which they will decide on whether to sign up for service.

In the first, Inmarsat capacity will be used to demonstrate the e-mail service. In the definitive AirTV system, the company's own satellites will deliver broadband data to the aircraft, with Inmarsat providing the less data-hungry return link.

"Broadband communications are highly asymmetric," says Stone. "Inmarsat will have more than enough capacity to handle e-mail and requests to ground servers."

Total system cost is put at $1.3 billion. Stone says that an initial funding round valued at $200 million will be completed in the next few months, and that a further $180 million needed to launch satellite construction by AirTV investor Alcatel is already in place. "There's also likely to be an initial public offering of shares," he says, "and we expect to see a 50/50 split between debt and equity when funding is complete."

In-flight connectivity provider Tenzing Communications is present here this week in the form of chief executive Edward Nicol, based at the press chalet of 30% investor Airbus.

Seattle-based Tenzing could turn out to be the glue that makes the grander schemes of the would–be satellite operators hold together. In the words of David Coiley from partner company ARINC: "They can make e-mail work in the aircraft – it's not as easy as it looks."

The company's in–aircraft e–mail solutions are based on its own design of cabin server and Inmarsat satellite links. It has two distribution models, retailing to individual airlines and wholesaling via Inmarsat service-provider partners like ARINC and SITA, as well as aspiring satellite operator AirTV. Individual passengers will be able to subscribe through their existing Internet service providers and telecoms suppliers.

Source: Flight Daily News