Global Eagle’s Ka connectivity takes flight

Got Ka? That’s the question Global Eagle was asking during the recent APEX EXPO show while demonstrating the latest high-speed inflight connectivity solution it has on offer. The long-rumored system takes advantage of Hughes’ Jupiter Ka-band satellite service and has room to grow from there.

Boarding Albatross One, the Global Eagle test aircraft, during the Ka-band connectivity demo at APEX EXPO
Boarding Albatross One, the Global Eagle test aircraft, during the Ka-band connectivity demo at APEX EXPO

EVP Connectivity Josh Marks exudes optimism about the new offering, with the hardware performing flying demonstrations on the company’s Albatross during the show. It is real and rapidly approaching certification, with the ground and space components fully operational. The antenna is new, of course, but that is a relatively minor change for certification purposes according to Marks, “Only the aperture has changed. The core system is the same core system that is in operation today on 950 aircraft. The certification requirements are relatively minor. We expect to be finishing up the certification this year.”



With Global Eagle’s focus on the single-aisle market and the Jupiter satellite coverage area encompassing only North America today there are questions about the size of the market for this new solution. Marks is quick to point out that many aircraft are up for contract renewals. Some of those renewals/swaps are already signed and airlines have not been shy about switching if desired, including claims of some Southwest aircraft leaving GEE service. Marks believes that the combination of connectivity technologies, backed by the full breadth of GEE solutions, can be compelling for airline customers.

The size of the retrofit market is going to be defined by the performance of the various competitors in the market. It is competitiveness on technology, on economics, on ROI, profitability, customer experience, consistency, coverage. All those dimensions matter. By putting all those pieces together we can drive retrofits. We can drive a value proposition that is fundamentally different from “just a pipe.”

Putting Global Eagle’s Ka-band to the test

All the talk is great but Global Eagle understands that to prove the value of the product it is necessary to show it in use, preferably on an aircraft. To that end the company operated test flights throughout the show; I took a ride on Thursday afternoon to try the system out.

Systems analysis and one of the better speed test scores I saw on the GEE Ka-band test flight
Systems analysis and one of the better speed test scores I saw on the GEE Ka-band test flight

As with the other Global Eagle solutions the service is available gate-to-gate (what exactly is the gate on a seaplane??). My phone connected to the network as we approached and the initial performance was solid.

Just another day at the office, testing the GEE Ka-band service in flight
Just another day at the office, testing the GEE Ka-band service in flight

Speed test numbers throughout the flight were neither consistent nor spectacular.

The best set of speed test numbers I while on Global Eagle's Ka-band connectivity kit
The best set of speed test numbers I while on Global Eagle’s Ka-band connectivity kit
Some less good speed test numbers I saw during the test flight
Some less good speed test numbers I saw during the test flight

Blame the old iPhone 5 I was running them on, perhaps, but I also had some difficulty associating my laptop to the network during the ~30 minute trip so I ran out of time before I got to my battery of “normal use” scenarios.

Flying on the Global Eagle Albatross. Departing from Long Beach Harbor.

Posted by Seth Miller on Thursday, September 28, 2017

I was able to live-stream the departure portion of the flight and a walk-through of the cabin. The video quality and stability was solid throughout. In the “does it work for real world stuff?” category I definitely see this as a great performance.

My efforts at a Facetime call failed during the test flight
My efforts at a Facetime call failed during the test flight

A Facetime call failed, though I don’t know if that was a network issue or a decision by the company to block that service.

Read more: Growth, diversification key for Global Eagle’s next steps

Ultimately my experience was inconsistent. I heard similar from some others on board and also of spectacular performances.

But I’m also not so hung up on the specifics of one (very short) flight experience so much as I am in acknowledging that the additional connectivity option is available.



So it works, but…

I have questions about the business case, of course. What volume of installs is necessary to justify GEE’s development expenses? What about contracts for satellite transponder time? Selling 25 of these is not likely a break-even number but is 250? Or 2500? How well can the Ka service stack with other technologies to deliver a diverse and reliable connectivity solution? Can the system truly roam to MEO constellations to deliver the geographic diversity beyond North America?

Somewhere off the coast of Long Beach, with my head out the window of the Albatross
Somewhere off the coast of Long Beach, with my head out the window of the Albatross

In this context the system is mighty similar to the Ka-band solution Thales spent the last year teasing, including imminent announcement of an airline customer. And the same satellites, too. I’m confident that the technical challenges will be overcome and the kit can deliver the promised connectivity. But eventually these systems also must deliver profits to the service providers, too.

More from APEX Expo 2017

Seth Miller has over a decade of experience covering the airline industry. With a strong focus on passenger experience, Seth also has deep knowledge of inflight connectivity and loyalty programs. He is widely respected as an unbiased commentator on the aviation industry. He is frequently consulted on innovations in passenger experience by airlines and technology providers. You can connect with Seth on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .