Air Canada is Banking on LEO Technology, Exec Says

Air Canada and other satellite mobile end users are looking forward to utilizing Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to provide connectivity to customers. Norman Haughton, Air Canada’s director of In-Flight Digital Entertainment and Wi-Fi said at the LEO Digital Forum that the airline made an investment into Electronically Steered Antennas (ESAs) in 2015 with LEO in mind.

“We are an airline that fly over the poles. There are severe coverage gaps for customers flying to China, Hong Kong, India and others, as an example. The minute LEO comes available as a technology for us to utilize, we will jump on that course,” Haughton said during a mobility panel on April 8.

Haughton sees a number of benefits for Air Canada.

“You have the benefit of lower latency, and this unlocks a number of benefits for customers,” he said. “LEOs and low latency is important if we focus in on experience. As time progresses, and passengers demand a more in-home experience, latency becomes important. They become important in polar coverage. We are banking on LEOs becoming a real thing,” he said, in a strong statement of intent for LEO.

Daniel Iriarte, In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity specialist for Aeromexico, also spoke of the importance of connectivity. Like Haughton, he said despite tough operating conditions, Aeromexico will not be compromising its connectivity plans. He believes airlines need a greater understanding of the technology.

“We work on whatever hardware is installed on the aircraft. We would like to know more and see an overview of the benefits [of moving to LEO satellites]. We would like to see cost-effective models. We want to get to know more about LEO constellations and how they will be involved in these services. We are excited about how our coverage could extend with LEO,” he said.

In the maritime market, Klaus Bruun Egeberg, head of Mobility and Connectivity for Maersk believes flexibility will be key for customers like Maersk. While LEO solutions are not ready for maritime yet, he is excited about the developments and believes Maersk will use LEO solutions in the future.

“We are using Ku- and Ka-band, and we have developed in-house capabilities to use any type of satellite capacity. We are going to explore LEO. We want flexibility and the ability to take in new technologies at the pace at what we want. Flexibility is the key word for us,” Bruun Egeberg said. “It might be a subset of our assets that utilize these technologies. We need to be in a position to have this flexibility and agility to use these new technologies to operate in the way we want.”

He said that in the past, shipping companies have been tied to a certain system once they purchase it, but Maersk does not want to be tied into a long-term contract with a specific technology. “We hope and expect our partners to be able to facilitate this,” he said.

Egeberg said Maersk expects to start exploring LEO next year as it looks to bring more connectivity to its fleet of ships. The company is going through a project to refresh satellite equipment over the next two years, and it will explore how to serve its fleet and crew using new technologies.

One sector that performed strongly last year was the high-end yachting sector, where there was a strong demand to be on yachts during the pandemic. LEOs are an exciting development for this sector.

Carlos Carbajal, CEO of OmniAccess commented, “I think this bridges the gap between land and sea, and this is good news for our customers. We re-engaged with Telesat [for services based on LEO]. We see the upsides on providing LEO in a maritime environment. Ultimately, we believe it will deliver a better service to our clients, both in terms of higher throughputs and lower latencies.”

However, while believing there is a revolution in LEO on the way, Carbajal also struck a note of caution, saying he does not think the satellite industry has done a good job on explaining the benefits of LEO and what it entails. He says the industry has to be careful about creating hype around LEO.

“We saw something similar a few years ago when Ka-band started to proliferate. We had clients who asked for Ka-band thinking it was a lot faster. People get the buzzwords, but misinterpret capabilities. We need to set expectations. For the end user, it is very complex. We have to try and simplify very complicated technologies for our clients,” he said.

Will Mudge, vice president of Engineering Operations for Speedcast is excited about what LEO can bring to customers, and said the industry is going through more of a revolution and an evolution.

“We will see a revolution because of the introduction of LEO technologies. It aligns with 5G customer experiences. It is driving higher needs for customers for connectivity,” Mudge said. “We are really exciting to bring a more at home style of connectivity experience to customers. This is what LEO will bring us. We are seeing a year-over-year doubling in demands for capacity.” VS

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