Passengers flying across the Pacific Ocean are set for a major upgrade in inflight connectivity performance. Panasonic Avionics and Eutelsat announced this week that Eutelsat 172b is now in service, delivering a massive increase in capacity to the market, particularly for the routes aircraft use between the United States and Asia.
Key to delivering this upgrade is the architecture of the new satellite. Like most current era Ku-band kit 172b delivers multiple spot beams of coverage rather than one wide beam. But 172b goes beyond that, adjusting the power delivered to the individual beams on a schedule tied to aircraft movements, essentially delivering more capacity where it is needed on a dynamic schedule. As Eutelsat CTO Yohann Leroy explains, “If you increase the power available in one beam you improve the quality of the link with the plane so you can put more bits/second in every Hertz.”
The 172b satellite is the first to use this Multi-Port Amplifier (“MPA”) technology in the Ku-band range, according to Leroy, giving it an advantage for both capacity and price in a market that historically was one of the most challenging on those fronts. By focusing more power where the planes are on a dynamic basis the companies waste less spectrum and power on empty ocean.
Rather than having one amplifier dedicated to each beam we implemented a set of amplifiers that we share between the 11 beams…. If the shape of the traffic is different in a couple of years we have the ability to adapt the satellite such that it can still provide a very good quality of service. Rather than dimensioning the satellite for the sum the peaks in each beam we can dimension it for the peak of the sum which varies much less. In the end we saved a significant amount of equipment, making the satellite much lighter and much more competitive for Panasonic. As a result Panasonic is able to provide its service to the airlines at a more competitive price than had it selected a different satellite operator. –Eutelsat CTO Yohann Leroy
The satellite launched in June from the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Its electric propulsion system meant a slightly slower progress to final orbit compared to chemical propulsion but it reached orbit in 4 months as expected and is now in service just under 6 months from launch. By choosing electric propulsion to raise into orbit the overall weight of the satellite is lowered (less fuel on board) reducing launch costs and overall operating costs for the 15+ year expected lifespan.
Our service to the mobility market in Asia continues to grow exponentially. For the first time ever, airlines and passengers will reap the benefits of Ku-band HTS technology as they fly across the Pacific as well as up and down the coast of Asia into areas across Oceania. We are very excited to add this significant improvement to our global network and look forward to unveiling the new passenger experience and operational efficiency capabilities that are only possible with this truly unique satellite. – Panasonic Avionics CEO Hideo Nakano
New(tec) Modem, too!
Commencing operation of the new satellite is only half the battle in delivering the improved performance inflight. Because of new technologies used every aircraft will require an upgraded modem to realize the full performance improvements. That modem, developed in partnership with Newtec, is now a year old and starting to see both new installations and retrofits gain speed, to the tune of roughly 200 units shipping per month.
For new installations Southwest Airlines is the early winner. The new hardware is necessary to efficiently and cost-effectively support the live television product on the Southwest fleet and PAC is now able to deliver that reliably. The company indicated that “multiple aircraft are in revenue service” with the airline, though the number remains low (believed to be single-digit as of publication time).
Retrofits are focused on United Airlines initially. As one of the earliest and largest Panasonic Avionics customers United is now pushing aggressively to replace the modem kit on board. That work also includes upgrades to some of the older wireless access points on board and adding additional WAPs where necessary to support the growing number of devices connecting. Reports suggest that as many as three aircraft per day are receiving the modem/controller upgrades. That pace is expected to continue or increase with tweaks to the deployment process automation until the full 350ish aircraft operating on the PAC network are completed.