Looking for some quality misinformation about the current state of the inflight connectivity market? A recent marketing video from Inmarsat is a great place to start. Particularly if truth in advertising isn’t really your thing.
In a segment called “Plane Facts” the company attempts to demonstrate that its Global Xpress Ka-band network is more capable and scalable than the many Ku-band offerings on the market. There are some gems of truth scattered through the piece but the half-truths and misleading “facts” are impressively bad.
Inmarsat faces plenty of challenges in the inflight connectivity market and its competitors generally focus on the limited network capacity and redundancy available. Only four I-5 satellites sit in orbit today with a fifth in the design phase, targeting a 2020 launch. This is in contrast to the 200ish Ku-band satellites in orbit. Inmarsat makes a valid point about these 200ish satellites: Most are in use for something else. And most are not designed for mobility applications.
From there Inmarsat chooses to attack the “shiny, new high-throughput satellites.” It is described as a “nice idea” but coming up short in solving the capacity problems.
Ku HTS are more advanced than wide-beam but there are only a handful and they haven’t been designed specifically for aviation so they’re just not able to deliver the capacity that airlines really need, where they really need it: over busy traffic routes and hubs. – Inmarsat marketing FUD
This statement is a mix of partial truths and misleading conclusions. It is true there are only a handful of HTS satellites in orbit today. But far more Ku HTS satellites are planned and in the design/build phase than Ka. Moreover, the observation that they are not specifically designed for aviation or that they are not properly focused on airline route paths is specious. Eutelsat 172b, for example, is absolutely a Ku-HTS satellite designed to serve aviation markets and deployed specifically in the North Pacific route path flown by so many airlines. It was designed in partnership with Panasonic Avionics and both that company and China Unicom are contracted for significant capacity on 172b to serve the aviation connectivity market.
There is also irony in Inmarsat raising the point about insufficient capacity in high demand areas given the architecture of the I-5 service today. The initial three satellites provided a thin blanket of coverage across the globe (excluding polar regions). It is not optimized for aviation routes at all, even with the handful of steerable beams on each satellite. The fourth satellite provides augmented capacity for a higher demand region but, again, the vast majority of the satellite capacity is spread evenly over the full coverage footprint, not targeted at specific aviation routes or hubs.
Inmarsat continues in its “analysis” of the Ku HTS market:
To make matters worse, these satellites have to be shared between all the resellers and all the airlines they serve, as well as all the other industries that the satellites were originally designed for.
The part where the capacity is shared between all the airlines is accurate. But that also applies to Inmarsat’s own network. The multiple airline customers with GX installed all share the same Ka resources just like Ku is shared. And the Inmarsat network is shared with other industries, again just like the Ku network. GX and its JetConneX BizAv cousin represent just under 500 aircraft on the Inmarsat network as of Q1 18. More than 6x that number of ships are fitted with FleetXpress hardware, the maritime version of the product, using the same satellites and capacity. GX has a 1000+ aircraft backlog while Fleet Xpress is also growing, with a larger potential market to target. And, in many cases, those ships are clustered around major ports which happen to be near major airport hub operations. This means aviation and maritime are sharing the same capacity in the most congested areas. The government segment also makes up a significant portion of both Ka and Ku business, again sharing the infrastructure.
There is nothing wrong with sharing, so long as SLAs are well defined and properly engineered. Suggesting that any of these satellite networks is viable solely as an aviation operation is myopic and would lead to financial ruin for whichever company tried to operate as such. Maritime and government remain important parts of the connectivity industry and Inmarsat needs them to survive, just like the other satellite operators do.
How great is Ka?!?
The second half of the segment focuses on why Ka band, and specifically Inmarsat’s implementation of it, is so great. The marketing pitch is clear, Ka “doesn’t need hundreds of satellites to deliver global services, just the right kind in the right places.” Putting the “right” satellites in the “right” places is apparently a trivial process, with new launches available whenever Inmarsat sees demand increasing. The fifth GX satellite is an example of this. It features targeted capacity covering specific air routes and truly does meet the goals of an aviation-focused satellite. But it is still a couple years away and costs a couple hundred million dollars. Growing that capacity in the “right” place is neither a quick nor cheap endeavor. And the Ku operators can do the same thing.
There are some cost benefits of the Ka spectrum based on available frequency bands and lower contention in some geographies. But simply switching spectrum bands is not a panacea. It never has been. And marketing it as such is all sorts of sketchy.
Or, to put it more bluntly:
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