The official launch of the FlytLIVE in-flight WiFi service on Spirit Airlines earlier this month, after a year of trial operations represents a strong return to the in-flight connectivity market for Thales. But the company is not slowing down now that the gear is live; quite the opposite, in fact.
Since announcing its plans for the new in-flight service in early 2017, Thales expected the SES-17 satellite to deliver a major boost to both the coverage footprint and the capacity of its Ka-band mobility network. After a successful satellite launch in October 2021 and significant testing, Thales VP Connectivity Product Delivery Jeff Payne confirmed that SES-17 is officially operational in the Thales network. The company expects to finalize testing and accept the network into its production offering before the end of July. And with that, the potential for a major performance boost comes to the fore.
Covering all of the Americas, and more
The footprint of SES-17 dramatically expands the coverage area Thales can serve. Hughes EchoStar XVII and XIX plus AMC-15 and AMC-16 from SES offered reasonable capacity, coverage, and redundancy over North America. But for routes deeper into Central or South America, those satellites came up short. As Payne bluntly explained, “That problem is solved now.”
The 200ish spot beams on SES-17 cover the Americas, other than Alaska, as well as the Transatlantic market. For Spirit this means 100% of flight routes can receive services. It also helps boost service for Air Canada’s 737MAX fleet, which also flies the Thales kit.
Massive speed boost
In addition to the increased coverage area, Payne also highlighted the significant performance boost the company expects to realize. Integrating with the ThinKom Ka2517 antenna on board, Thales is seeing “Unmatched performance of 400 megabits on the downlink and 100 megabits on an uplink.”
Payne continued, “We’ve got the North Atlantic covered with the existing network, but nothing like a capability of SES-17 covering that Atlantic corridor. [SES-17] is just designed for higher performance, with that digital transparent processor enabling the dynamic allocation, being able to put the bandwidth and the power where it’s needed. It is just a much more efficient, better way to deliver the capacity.”
It is not just SES-17 that enables the high speeds on board. Multiple components, including the antenna, come together to deliver the Thales solution. And while Thales had some early antenna issues with its homegrown model, the company cannot offer enough praise for ThinKom’s ThinAir Ka2517 antenna.
“This is a Ka2517 with three times more spectral efficiency than than any other mechanical antenna that’s out there,” explained Payne.” We take that efficiency, combine that with the SES-17 high throughput satellite, put it underneath of a [digital transparent processor] where you can you can drive the bandwidth where it’s required, and it’s a significant game changer out into the market. Plus, the flat panel is three to four times more reliable because of the limitation of all the mechanical pieces.”
When will then be now? Sooooon!
With testing of SES-17 integration to the Thales operations nearly complete, the company expects to start transitioning the Spirit fleet in August. It is a relatively simple, over-the-air configuration file load to the aircraft. Still, the companies are taking a somewhat cautious approach, spreading the conversion of the 150 installed planes over several weeks. By the end of August, however, they expect the migration to complete.
Not so fast…
Just because Thales can deliver 400 megabits/second to a plane, however, does not mean it regularly will.
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