LEO Operators Take Aim at the In-Flight Connectivity Market
The satellite-based on-board Wi-Fi market is dominated by GEO satellite operators, something a new band of LEO providers are seeking to change. Will LEOs revolutionize the IFC space, and how will GEO incumbents defend their turf?
May 23, 2022
Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators have their sights firmly set on the in-flight connectivity (IFC) market, and have made some bold statements about the impact they expect to have on this space. The extent to which LEOs could disrupt the on-board Wi-Fi sector, however, is up for debate and depends very much on whom you ask.
Today's satellite-based IFC services are supported by Geostationary (GEO) satellites, with operators such as Inmarsat, Viasat, and Intelsat providing well-established solutions to a growing number of airlines. But potential LEO rivals — including OneWeb, Telesat with its Lightspeed constellation, and SpaceX with its Starlink network — are waiting in the wings and promising great things when they complete their launches and break into the IFC market.
Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink Commercial Sales for SpaceX, made waves at the virtual Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit in June 2021 when he predicted that in 10 years' time, LEO operators will account for 90 percent of the satellite-based IFC market. Other LEO players are a little more guarded on putting out such high numbers at this stage, but confident nonetheless in their ability to shake up the sector.
Philippe Schleret, Telesat's regional sales vice president for North America, says "the numbers are a guessing game," but he predicts that LEOs will "definitely be a game-changer for in-flight connectivity." He adds: "This is a market that has been struggling to bring the same type of user experience that you can get on land, and with the fiber-like connectivity that we can deliver with Telesat Lightspeed, it will totally change the user experience."
Ben Griffin, vice president of Mobility at OneWeb, injects what he describes as "a stake of realism" into SpaceX's 90 percent market-share prediction.
"I would love for that to be true, but I think we need to be a bit credible here. Having been in this game for quite some time, even if it is the best technology in the world and it's a fraction of the cost of anything else, I think that to get anywhere near those rates is, frankly, highly unlikely," says Griffin. "If by the end of this decade LEO represented 50 percent of all satellite consumed in IFC, I would say that we were doing pretty well."
Incumbent GEO IFC players are skeptical about the claims of these would-be market disruptors. Inmarsat's senior vice president of IFC, Niels Steenstrup, for instance, describes the claims as "a bit overstated and highly aspirational." He adds: "It's not as straightforward as the LEO operators make it out to be. Airlines, of course, are going to be interested. They're going to engage and understand, but until the technology is proven, I don't think you're going to see a lot of adoption for IFC."
Frederik van Essen, vice president of Business Development and managing director at Intelsat, is similarly unconvinced.
"Just saying that LEO will do world domination, I take that with a grain of salt," says van Essen. While LEO has potential for low-latency service, he questions the importance of latency to airline customers.
"If you look at the services we typically use on board an aircraft, is it going to be high-frequency trading for your stocks? I don't think so. For most of the things that you do on board, latency doesn't play a role at all. So, it's a questionable advantage," he says.
LEO operators disagree on the importance of latency, however, billing it as one of their key differentiators alongside high capacity and global, pole-to-pole coverage.
"The obvious benefit is the latency," says Telesat's Schleret. "You have a sub-50 millisecond latency versus what you see today on GEOs that are in the 600-800 millisecond range. It's another magnitude lower, and that will enable a lot of new applications and, obviously, a superior passenger experience."
OneWeb's Griffin points to cloud computing – a lot of which, he says, requires sub 200-millisecond latency – online conference calls, and gaming as applications that benefit from low latency.
"Even just browsing, it doesn't matter if you've got a gigabit per second if you're suffering from latency of 800-900 milliseconds as you do in the GEO world. It still feels a bit clunky, even though the speed is good," he says.
The number one benefit of LEO for IFC, adds Griffin, is the "sheer volume" of capacity in the network.
"We've got tons. Equally, it's delivered uniformly around the world, so it doesn't matter if you're an operator in the U.S., doing transatlantic flights, Asia, Africa, anywhere in the world, there's tons of coverage available. There aren't any areas where we can't serve the aviation market," he says.
Despite all the hype, however, SpaceX is the only LEO provider to have so far signed any agreements with launch airline customers. Hop-on jet service JSX announced April 25 that it had selected Starlink as its Wi-Fi provider. It has placed an order to begin installing the system on 100 aircraft, and says the first Starlink-equipped plane will take flight later this year.
Hawaiian Airlines became the first major commercial carrier to sign up for Starlink, agreeing in late April to equip its Airbus A330s, A321neos and incoming fleet of Boeing 787-9s with the solution. Both JSX and Hawaiian say they will provide the service free-of-charge to passengers. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Delta Air Lines has also held talks with Starlink, and has conducted exploratory tests of its technology. Delta's Wi-Fi services are currently split between Viasat and Intelsat.
OneWeb is "having discussions with prospective airline customers," says Griffin, and "there are several airlines that are interested in being the launch customer."
"I can't disclose who, but I would say that as we were approaching our original service date of early 2023, the interest from the airline community has ratcheted up quite a bit," adds Griffin. That date has slipped, however, to the latter half of 2023 after OneWeb suspended all launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in March following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The London-headquartered company has since signed an agreement with SpaceX that will enable it to resume launches later this year. It has so far launched two-thirds of its planned 648-strong LEO satellite constellation.
Telesat's LEO IFC service has also been hit with delays due to supply chain issues.
"At this point, we're expecting to begin launching in 2025 and offer full global services in 2026, and we'll be ready to provide the in-flight connectivity services right from the beginning of operations of the constellation," says Schleret. "We've been working with Thales Alenia Space to analyze and mitigate the schedule delays and we believe the supply chain issues have delayed us by about a year, but we're still looking at how to improve those dates with the manufacturer."
Schleret adds that Telesat has "seen a lot of interest and traction from both the IFC providers and from the airlines" in its Lightspeed network. The Canadian operator plans to serve the aviation market indirectly through IFC providers such as Anuvu.
Service provider Anuvu, formerly known as Global Eagle, is following what it describes as a "bridge to LEO" strategy for aviation. Earlier this year, it signed an agreement with Telesat for 10 gigabits of Ka-band capacity on Telesat's 19V Vantage GEO satellite, adding to Anuvu's existing multi-band capacity on 54 satellites from 11 operators. Anuvu also plans to launch its own constellation of microGEO satellites as part of its strategy to enable airline customers to begin using terminals and capacity that are forward-compatible with the Telesat Lightspeed LEO network.
"When we looked at all the LEO constellation providers, Telesat checked all the boxes for us as a great participant in what is the LEO layer of our network," says Mike Pigott, executive vice president of connectivity at Anuvu. "We're big believers in their design and we're working very closely with them on making sure our shipsets, our network design, our operations are compatible with their Lightspeed network, and we're building layers on top of that to add in our own GEO arc."
Pigott believes that "we're at the end of the beginning of connectivity, and the innovation curve we're about to start is going to be rapid and truly revolutionary."
One of the biggest questions on airlines' minds when discussing LEO satellite-based IFC is the antenna, says Schleret. Last year, Telesat and ThinKom Solutions agreed to collaborate on integrating the latter's Ka2517 aeronautical antenna with Lightspeed. Telesat is also working with Anuvu to make that company's Airconnect antenna compatible with Lightspeed.
"These will be two great solutions right from the start of service," says Schleret. "We've also made some great progress in the evaluation of electronically-steerable antennas [ESAs] for the aviation market, so we'll have an ESA antenna for aircraft for Telesat Lightspeed that will bring attractive performance and cost."
OneWeb, meanwhile, has opted to go with electronically-steered array technology from the start. In the first quarter of last year, it signed a joint development agreement with SatixFy UK to base its aero terminal on SatixFy's electronically-steered multibeam antenna technology. OneWeb followed this in November 2021 with an agreement with GDC Advanced Technology to develop a new terminal based on ESA technology developed by Ball Aerospace.
While new technology adds to airlines' perceived risk of opting for LEO IFC, Griffin points to the advantages of ESAs in the context of aviation, such as less weight and drag, and fewer parts to repair.
"For me, it's much more of an opportunity than a risk because if you eradicate moving parts it's going to last longer, and if it lasts longer you're going to spend less time having it maintained," he says. "Any airline or aircraft operator will tell you that whenever antennas fail it's a bit of a pain because it's not just going into an aircraft and swapping something over, you've got to take the radome off."
OneWeb's aim, says Griffin, is "to have the kit cost a bit lower than it is today" for airlines.
"We understand that the CapEx requirement to install on an aircraft is not insignificant, and we're always looking for ways in which we can overcome that hurdle," he adds.
Having a strong antenna strategy is important when serving the aviation market because "you're hitting a moving target with another moving target," observes Andy Masson, vice president of Product and Portfolio Management at in-flight entertainment and connectivity provider Panasonic Avionics.
Panasonic does not own satellites, rather it buys bandwidth from a suite of providers. This, he asserts, "puts us in quite a strong position to go and buy capability where it comes online and leverage that for our airline customers."
Masson views LEO as "very compelling." He says: "There's, frankly, a cost advantage with LEO because there's an enormous number of them, and they have a huge advantage by bringing a big reduction in latency." Coverage is another key selling point, adds Masson.
"LEO satellites have a huge coverage that goes over the polar regions," says Masson. "Anyone who's flown over the pole, maybe they've gone from the Middle East to the U.S., will have seen a big chunk of the flight connectivity turns off. That won't happen anymore. You'll have extremely high speeds and you'll have this coverage, which is quite compelling for the airline customers."
The jury is still out on whether LEO operators will revolutionize the IFC market. What is clear, however, is that demand for in-flight connectivity is continuously rising. The desire to be connected to the internet at all times was strong before the pandemic, and has only been amplified as people were forced to conduct large parts of their lives in a virtual, rather than a face-to-face environment.
As OneWeb's Griffin puts it: "All I ever see in front of me is an increase in demand [for IFC] and not a massive increase in supply to match that, or certainly not a correlative increase in supply."
GEO Operators Add MEO/LEO Layers to Defend IFC Turf
Established GEO satellite-based in-flight connectivity providers might appear unconvinced that LEO upstarts pose a threat to their market share, but they are building up their armories in preparation for battle. Intelsat, Inmarsat, Viasat, and SES speak about a hybrid, multi-orbit future for IFC services.
"We look at LEOs as complementary to our GEO system, so we think a multi-orbit strategy is very smart," says Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of Viasat's Commercial Aviation division. Viasat has previously applied to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to transfer previously-gained approval for 20 MEO satellites to a constellation of 288 LEO satellites.
Buchman says the LEO strategy is "still in the planning stages." If and when they do come on stream, Viasat's LEOs would serve as a "low-latency overlay" to its GEO network, he adds.
Inmarsat, which provides airlines with a GEO satellite-based IFC service known as GX Aviation and an air-to-ground/S-band solution branded as the European Aviation Network (EAN), last year revealed plans to launch its Orchestra network. This, it says, will bring together existing GEO satellites with LEO satellites and terrestrial 5G to form an integrated solution for mobility.
"Our belief is [in] the hybrid network structure that we have with Orchestra, where you selectiv ely use [LEOs] where you need them to add specific capacity for specific applications," says Niels Steenstrup, senior vice president of In-Flight Connectivity at Inmarsat.
Intelsat has "filed for bandwidth for a MEO network, which is something we're studying for the longer term [as] an additional layer we'll be adding," says Frederik van Essen, vice president business development and managing director, He adds: "The philosophy is to be multi-orbit, multi-band, and to provide people with the best experience by combining all those assets, using software-defined technologies."
In a January 2022 interview with Via Satellite, SES CEO Steve Collar said he expects demand for IFC "to outstrip supply in the next few years, which is a healthy situation"
"While there is a lot of talk about the capability that will come in the future, very little of it is here today. The launch of SES-17 is timed well to intercept the recovery from COVID, and will be a key asset for our aviation business," Collar said. VS