It took an extra 15 minutes for the weather to clear in French Guiana on Tuesday afternoon, a tense wait after a few days working to resolve a technical fault in the ground systems associated with the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. But the Inmarsat GX-5 satellite is now safely in geosynchronous transfer orbit. It was launched at 21:24 UTC on 26 November 2019 and safely separated from the launcher 34 minutes later. Telemetry data was successfully acquired shortly thereafter.
The successful launch of GX5 represents a pivotal moment in the development of GX Aviation and Jet ConneX. This next generation satellite will deliver more capacity to Europe and the Middle East than the combined entire existing GX fleet (GX1-GX4) does worldwide, ensuring that Inmarsat’s aviation customers remain at the cutting-edge of passenger connectivity technologies as their needs evolve.– Philip Balaam, President of Inmarsat Aviation
The satellite now begins its move to geostationary orbit at 11° E, 36,000km above Earth, where it will join the GX network and massively increase the available Ka-band capacity available to aircraft and maritime vessels subscribing to the satellite connectivity service.
From coverage to capacity with Inmarsat GX-5
The first four GX payloads delivered broad coverage footprints. The GX-5 satellite is the first from Inmarsat to target a specific geography with significantly more capacity. Centered on the Middle East region and stretching from Europe to Asia, the satellite brings a massive increase in capacity to the market, exceeding the total capacity of the prior four GX payloads combined.
It transforms Inmarsat’s ability to deliver a truly high speed connectivity solution to its growing connected fleet of aircraft, now topping 1,000 installed aircraft in the commercial and business aviation segments. Approximately 1,000 more are under contract for eventual GX Aviation installation. The bulk of these committed aircraft will fly routes covered in whole or in part by the GX-5 payload.
Moreover, the GX-5 launch is the first of eight payloads in the launch pipeline through 2023. A pair of payloads will fly on the new I-6 constellation, followed by GX 7, 8 and 9 launching early next decade. The 7/8/9 trio will, similar to GX-5, each offer more capacity than satellites 1-4 combined.
Additionally, the 7/8/9 Trio are built on the new Airbus OneSat platform that allows for fully dynamic allocation of coverage areas and power even after the satellites are in orbit. Inmarsat Aviation President Philip Balaam explains, “With the on-board processor and active antennae we will be able to instantaneously create new beams in any shape and size… We’ll be able to track clusters of aircraft. We’ll be able to adapt as routes evolve. The fact that they’re software defined means we can upgrade them as technologies on the ground evolve as well.”
Following those launches a pair of payloads delivering arctic coverage will orbit. In partnership with Space Norway’s Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM), the GX-10A and GX-10B payloads will enter service in elliptical orbit, allow the company to deliver service north of 65 degrees, a region the current constellation (and GEO orbits in general) can not serve. As ultra long haul flying continues to expand and more aircraft take a polar routing this unique coverage offering sets Inmarsat’s GX Aviation platform apart from its competitors.
Rethinking the future of inflight connectivity
Getting more bandwidth into orbit is critical for Inmarsat’s success, but it is very much not the only factor the company is looking at to develop the business. Speaking with PaxEx.Aero on the sidelines of the Future Travel Experience Asia conference earlier this month Dominic Walters, VP Marketing Communications and Strategy for Inmarsat Aviation, pushed deeper into the potential for the connected aircraft as a means to improve the passenger experience.
The industry needs to look at it as more than just WiFi. They only look at it as WiFi. There are so many players looking at it as WhatsApp and they can surf the internet. WiFi provides you with a digital platform that enables you to do millions of things. What you want to do with that is open to your strategists, disruptors, innovators. Once you’ve got that platform on board there is a massive opportunity in personalization and advertising.– Inmarsat Aviation’s Dominic Walters
Pushing beyond just an open pipe to bring value-added services on board is not a new concept, but Inmarsat is starting to deliver some results with its partners. They are not all as strong as hoped. Yet. But the process is being refined and the company continues to experiment with how the value can be improved.
One consideration for Walters and the rest of the industry is just how much of the inflight shopping experience and other value-added services are predicated on delivering massive bandwidth to the aircraft. Transactions can be reduced to a tiny data transfer, assuming most of the catalog is cached in on-board servers. A nearly full-featured shopping experience can, in theory, be delivered through a much smaller (and possible cheaper) pipe.
Walters is keen on that not because it obviates the need for the more powerful GX Aviation platform, but because it opens up so many other opportunities within the system. “If we fine tune the shopping to a smaller packet then we free up more bandwidth for other things. This is a entire passenger experience, an entire ecosystem of opportunity. There will be streaming movies. There will be downloading of books. There will be surfing the internet. Our goal is to help the airlines and quantify this into an answer for how they make money putting the system on board.”
This transition to a “digital retailing mindset” is something that many airline CEOs are talking about but few are delivering on. In large part, most of them are focused only on the pre-flight sales experience on the ground, not the full travel ribbon and the passenger experience in the sky. For Walters the value proposition of that new business focus comes from including the inflight experience in that consideration.
And once that happens the value proposition to the airline shifts dramatically. “At a certain point [an airline] is going to say ‘I’ll pay for connectivity; I’ll pay whatever I pay,’ because ultimately it is bringing me loyal passengers. It is bringing me loyal passengers on board who would not get on board if I didn’t have it. It is making their lives easier. It is keeping them happy in their seat. It is helping at immigration. And, oh by the way, we got a little better revenue in the duty free sales, too.”
Plenty of airlines remain skeptical of this value proposition, particularly with the significant up-front costs of getting the kit on board their fleet. But the installation is getting easier and more leasing companies are insisting that the aircraft be provisioned at the factory. Should the APEX Association-driven standards around hardware interoperability take root that will likely further reduce the costs, or at least improve the flexibility airlines have with the systems.
More from Future Travel Experience Asia 2019
- AirAsia to begin ticket sales for other airlines
- AirFi streaming IFE goes live on Batik Airways
- PaxEx Update: FTE Asia edition
- A new player in the race for inflight WiFi over India
- AirFi moving forward with Atlantic Airways’ connected deployment
- Inmarsat’s GX-5 launches successfully, kicking off the next phase of the GX story
- AirAsia looks beyond the pipe for inflight connectivity value
- Putting AirAsia’s new GX WiFi to the test