For the past few years Inmarsat has extolled the virtues of its newest L-band satellite-based aeronautical service, SwiftBroadband (SBB), telling everyone who would listen that SBB's data speeds of up to 432kb/s - which can support in-flight mobile phone communications and light or managed internet - would satisfy the connectivity needs of most airline passengers.
"If you're an airline, why would you bolt on that [higher-speed Ku-band] solution if you're going to have three to five users?" asked Inmarsat in 2009.
The London-based mobile satellite operator continues to downplay the value of Ku-band connectivity. However, a new move to launch, in 2014, a superfast Ka-band satellite-based mobile broadband service called Global Xpress shows it accepts that bandwidth demands - across all sectors, including aviation - are on the rise.
NEED FOR SPEED
"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," says Inmarsat chief executive Andrew Sukawaty.
Inmarsat's decision to enter the Ka-band market has made in-flight entertainment and connectivity behemoths Thales and Panasonic Avionics stand up and take notice.
Thales, whose current strategy centres around SBB, applauds Inmarsat's plan, saying it is optimistic it can provide certificated avionics equipment to support Ka-band in-flight connectivity within a few years.
"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 [late 2006] 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," says Thales vice-president of marketing Stuart Dunleavy.
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, adding that Inmarsat's launch of Global Xpress for the maritime, energy and government/defence sectors means "the airline industry isn't going to have to stomach all the cost".
Boeing, which has been commissioned to deliver the satellites, 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.
While SBB-based IFE&C connectivity solutions are on offer from Panasonic, the manufacturer has focused its efforts on bringing a Ku-band offering to market to fill the void left by Connexion. It has secured several deals for its so-called eXConnect service, including with Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines.
But Panasonic has also been closely following Inmarsat's decision to migrate to Ka. Executive director of corporate sales and marketing Neil James says the announcement "reinforces our stance that airlines need true broadband for their cabin applications and operations [but] Ka is a minimum of four years away, and there are still several technical and commercial questions that need to be answered".
He adds: "Today Ku technology offers true broadband that is affordable, global, and mature."
James acknowledges, however, that if and when Ka becomes available, "we will offer an upgrade that will optimise our existing eXConnect solution for Ka".
IFE&C consultant Michael Planey says the economics of Ka-band connectivity haven't yet been proven to everyone. And, he says, that the market-driven financial performance of current connectivity solutions "haven't [yet] met the original expectations", which could lead carriers to be cautious.
Inmarsat, meanwhile, says it will continue to drive the growth of its current services, including SBB, and offer unique hybrid packages combining both L-band and Ka-band networks.