It should come as no surprise that a trio of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators believe more than 90% of in-flight connectivity traffic will pass over their networks in a decade’s time. Still, hearing how SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat believe their upcoming constellations will compete for traffic during this week’s Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit reveals slightly different takes on the market and what they believe will be necessary to secure customers going forward.
A more or less direct approach to the market
SpaceX is all about vertical integration of the business, from the rockets launching the satellites into space down to the manufacture of the customer terminals (or at least directly contracting that work out). Vice President of Starlink Commercial Sales Jonathan Hofeller believes that’s a critical aspect of the business, especially when it comes to controlling product quality and cost. This includes adapting the terrestrial phased array antenna technology to an airborne terminal as part of the company’s technology roadmap.
Achieving that level of total control in the commercial aerospace ecosystem is incredibly challenging (and expensive). Few other vendors have developed an end-to-end vertical integration that delivers the optimal performance and addresses the aviation certification and integration challenges. It will be an uphill battle for SpaceX.
At the other end of the spectrum is Telesat and its planned Lightspeed constellation. Director of Commercial and Product Development Manik Vinnakota talked about the many partnerships Telesat already has with inflight connectivity vendors today and how he expects those will continue to play a key role in connecting airlines to the satellite operators.
On the antenna front Vinnakota highlighted his company’s approach to reuse existing technology as much as possible, with mention of the Anuvu (formerly Global Eagle) antenna tests as well as ThinKom‘s Ka2517 solution, both of which work on GEO satellites today and will work on LEO in the future.
Somewhere in the middle was OneWeb, represented by VP Mobility Ben Griffin. OneWeb is rebuilding its approach to distribution in the post-bankruptcy reorganization. This could include selling directly to airlines where it makes sense, though some distribution partners are also likely. It also means working closely with third party hardware vendors (such as JetTalk terminal) towards delivering the aircraft terminal and other parts of the connectivity solution.
Filling in the coverage gaps
Hofeller noted that SpaceX is in conversations with several airlines about potentially adopting the technology. He did not get in to how detailed the conversations are nor what coverage footprint is being promised, however. The latter factor could prove a challenge for SpaceX in its current satellite setup.
The current generation of SpaceX satellites lack inter-satellite links that allow for traffic to relay across the constellation in space when a satellite is out of range of a ground station. While the company has a handful of satellites with ISLs testing in orbit today the path to full global coverage with that technology remains unclear. And without that the company cannot deliver the true global coverage footprint that the trio agree airlines demand.
A likely leader?
OneWeb appears on track to deliver a functional, global solution before the other two, despite SpaceX’s lead on satellite launches and terrestrial service activation. OneWeb ‘s Griffin expects that an airline deal could be announced as early as mid-2022, with the constellation expected to deliver global coverage late that year or in early 2023.
But Griffin is also somewhat realistic about how airlines will approach the market, noting that even with the LEO constellation online “we’re not going to expect everyone to ground aircraft, rip GEO kit off and put ours on.” He previously suggested that a LEO/GEO coexistence would be useful to “defuse some of that perceived risk, even though we don’t see it as a risk.” That approach will cover the first couple years of the constellation’s operations. In the back half of the decade, however, Griffin is “fairly confident in a good up-take of LEO services” with the new constellations taking over the majority of aviation-related traffic.
Vinnakota also does not expect a rip-and-replace approach to the transition, with a focus on making sure hardware installed on planes today can support the newer satellites. The Lightspeed constellation is a year or so behind OneWeb in terms of expected entry into service.
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