After months of flying in a testing state Qatar Airways and Inmarsat formally placed the Global Xpress (“GX”) inflight wifi connectivity solution into service. The system, branded “Super Wi-Fi” by the airline, is rolling out on the carrier’s 777 and A350 aircraft. Plans call for more than 130 planes to eventually carry the system on board. A few dozen have GX installed today, including A350s delivered from the Airbus factory with the system on board. Many operate on the slower and more expensive SwiftBroadband solution today. They will eventually convert to the GX offering.
Passengers will receive one hour of service complimentary on board; further connectivity will come at a price the companies describe as “affordable” though details were not offered.
Qatar Airways is renowned as one of the greatest innovators in global aviation with passengers being at the centre of everything they do. We are delighted that they are now pioneering our game-changing GX Aviation inflight broadband across the globe. This unprecedented service adds to the airline’s award-winning, five star onboard experience by allowing passengers to seamlessly browse the internet, stream videos, check social media and more during flights. – Mr. Philip Balaam, President of Inmarsat Aviation
Qatar Airways is the first carrier in the Middle East to deploy the Inmarsat GX offering. Emirates also signed a contract for the service on its 777X fleet via integration partner Thales. Emirates currently operates a mix of SwiftBroadband and Panasonic Avionics GCS Ku-band inflight connectivity systems on its aircraft.
Mention of video streaming or “rich content without restriction” from Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker raise some questions about the total network capacity and the individual aircraft link throughput. On a recent flight during the beta testing phase performance varied from speedy to sluggish.
YouTube appears blocked. That’s not so great. pic.twitter.com/d2HpXskTGj
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) March 20, 2018
The service worked well through most of the trip while even basic social media browsing came up slow at other times. During that flight the service was free to all passengers on board for the full flight duration so take rates were somewhat higher, but that clearly stressed the overall offering. And some streaming video services were blocked on that flight.
This is on A7-BEM, a 777-300ER operating QR702 JFK-DOH. Sadly, performance tailed off later in flight. It got bursty rather than steady. I’m guessing contention w other planes in the spot beam. #paxex
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) March 20, 2018
A follow-on conversation with Inmarsat executives noted that the aircraft link became saturated due to high usage:
What we actually saw is that you had perfect connectivity throughout the whole flight. The number of users on the flight was steadily growing, especially towards the end of the flight. At some point there were more than 80 people using the system at the same time, including some heavy users.… It was the number of users that you started to feel. The link from the aircraft to the satellite [was saturated].
The company also pointed out that traffic shaping was not in place during that flight so that the expectations (and service levels) were not as well managed as they could have been. Managing those expectations is key, and the quotes in the press release suggest a level of service that might prove harder to deliver, depending on the number of users connected at the same time. Fortunately for the companies, total bandwidth consumption is expected to dip as limits are placed on the free sessions, something Inmarsat acknowledges, “Normally it is not going to be a free offer so you will not see the uptake we are seeing now.”
Fortunately for everyone involved Inmarsat committed to adding another satellite to the GX constellation. The “GX5” satellite will focus significantly more capacity on the Europe-Middle East-Asia corridor so heavily used by Qatar Airways and Emirates today. That satellite will help fill out the high demand portions of the airlines’ route network, hopefully soon after the current capacity is saturated around the hubs. For Inmarsat it is about “making sure that we can satisfy that demand and that it is a great experience.” But also only deploying the capacity as it is needed, else the costs of orbiting the satellites are not properly offset with revenues.