When it comes to satellite communications spectrum is key. Getting access to a broader frequency range is rare so making the most of what is available is critical. Ka-band operators scored a major win last month as delegates to the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 agreed to increase the frequency available for mobile stations – like airplanes and ships – by 400%. The resolution adopted by the UN-backed International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will not necessarily make infilght wifi faster immediately, but it gives operators significantly more room to scale up, removing potential limits as the number of aircraft online grows.
The overall Ka-band range includes 2.5 GHz of spectrum for each of the uplink and downlink channels. But Earth stations in motion (ESIM) such as aircraft and ships were limited to using only 500 MHz of that capacity under a 2015 agreement. While 500 MHz is a lot, more is always better. And after significant lobbying efforts the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) agreed that the full range should generally be available to mobile stations.
We are grateful for the global recognition of the importance of Ka-band satellite broadband for use on mobile platforms from aircraft, ships and ferries to buses and trains. Having a uniform regulatory framework for ESIM applications across nations will enable Viasat to meet escalating customer requirements for mobility service enhancements, while creating a broader environment for further innovation in the mobility sector.– Mark Dankberg, chairman and CEO, Viasat
There are some caveats. As the ITU notes, “The necessary sharing constraints are more complex than in the 19.7-20.2 GHz and 29.5-30.0 GHz frequency bands and consequently, the use of ESIM in some parts of the 17.7-19.7 GHz and 27.5-29.5 GHz frequency bands may not be feasible in some geographic locations due to use by other services, the current use and future availability of which needs to be protected.” Legacy systems will be protected under the new treaty, but an opportunity to dramatically expand the available capacity is at hand.
A win for Ka-band connectivity suppliers
For satellite-based infilght wifi connectivity providers realizing a 4x increase in total capacity is a significant win. That it generally can be activated without changing any of the hardware is even more compelling. For both Viasat and Inmarsat the existing hardware is, generally, compliant with the expanded frequency ranges. A Viasat spokesperson confirms “Viasat’s WildBlue-1, ViaSat-1, ViaSat-2 and the three ViaSat-3 satellites have the ability to operate in more than just the 19.7-20.2 and 29.5-30 GHz bands. So, all of those satellites have additional existing capacity that can be used for expanded aero/maritime service under the new ESIM rules.” Additionally, all of the Gen 2 hardware installed on Viasat-connected aircraft supports the expanded frequency range. While this leaves the earliest installations unsupported they will still benefit as aircraft with the newer hardware can shift to the expanded range, freeing up the original frequencies for the older systems.
Similarly, Inmarsat notes “All of our current and future spacecraft and terminals can operate in frequencies covered by both the original ESIM rules established at WRC-15 and the new ones established at WRC-19.” Much like Viasat, Inmarsat’s new satellites slated for launch in the coming years are also confirmed to support the expanded frequency range.
The Hub Density challenge
Even with significant capacity available on the satellites there are challenges around hub airports (or major cruise ship ports) as demand and the number of ESIMs grows. By making more channels available to be used the new regulations should help improve performance, especially where contention is high. This will not necessarily mean more bandwidth to individual aircraft, as the overall channel size used for communications between the satellite and ESIM is not changing. But it should mean less congestion on the frequencies as more channels can now be supported.
Beyond the passengers
Not only is increased capacity good news for passengers, but it should also help airlines as they push a “digital transformation” agenda in their operations. More bandwidth should improve the quality of service getting data off the aircraft and, at least theoretically, reduce the costs of that data transmission as well. Speaking to that topic Gilberto Lopez Meyer, SVP Safety and Flight Operations at the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) expressed optimism around this new policy, The airline community congratulates the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 for its successful work on the issue of ESIM. ESIM will support airlines in providing better broadband connectivity for on-board passengers. It will also serve as an enabler for airlines’ digital transformation effort in enhancing current and future gate-to-gate operations.”
The new rules should take effect in mid-2020. And, while some countries may lag in the implementation or still reserve some sections of the expanded range against aircraft, the overall benefit to the industry is very real.