The in-flight connectivity (IFC) market is one of many verticals disrupted by the proliferation of satellites in Non-Geostationary Orbits (NGSO). While the aviation industry is still in the early stages of a recovery from the impact of the pandemic, NGSO operators, notably OneWeb, SES, SpaceX, and Telesat, remain focused on building a business around the provision of IFC.
In the context of commercial aviation, the narrative around Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) appears to have moved on from seeing mega-constellations as the silver bullet to one which points toward a more measured migration from GEO to multi-orbit networks. The technology currently installed on more than 9,000 commercial aircraft today is a contributing factor to this perspective, as is the slow-paced and risk-averse nature of aviation in general. Airlines tend to want proven and robust solutions. With constellations (and associated hardware) still being built, there are question marks around how swiftly the transition to LEO should occur.
Nevertheless, OneWeb, mPOWER, Starlink, and Lightspeed are effectively here, and airlines are very interested in how NGSO capacity can improve the current IFC business model. So, assuming the right answer is a multi-orbit future, how are existing IFC service providers and capacity owners adapting to the disruption looming over the horizon?
SES: SES is nicely positioned having been among the first, if not the first, to pivot to multi-orbit, multi-band capacity, through its O3b MEO constellation, which already supplements a global fleet of more than 50 GEO satellites. In 2022, SES will further enhance its MEO offering through the launch of O3b mPOWER, a constellation of seven high-capacity MEO satellites that will supply multiple terabits of throughput, globally, including to IFC applications.
Its multi-orbit capabilities and broad end user base have made SES a natural target for flat panel antenna manufacturers over the years. Having facilitated a number of successful tests across its O3b and GEO constellations, SES unveiled Alcan Systems, Isotropic Systems, and Viasat as technology partners for the mPOWER constellation back in 2018.
Isotropic Systems is a notable name on this list, with the manufacturer due to launch its highly anticipated multi-band, multi-beam terminal this year. Isotropic recently demonstrated the advanced multi-orbit functionality of its antenna by simultaneously connecting to multiple satellites in multiple orbits on SES’s network. While IFC is not at the top of Isotropic’s priority list right now, the company has indicated an in-flight variant is in development.
Eutelsat: While other satellite operators have opted to move down the IFC supply chain, Eutelsat remains committed to its positioning as a capacity provider to some of the biggest names in the IFC market including Anuvu, China Unicom, Panasonic Avionics, and Taqnia Aerospace.
In 2021, Eutelsat surprisingly made its move early by acquiring a majority stake in LEO operator OneWeb. I don’t believe we’re about to see Eutelsat follow Intelsat down the IFC value chain, as both it and OneWeb are aligned in the risk-averse approach of selling through many third-party integrators rather than directly to airlines. Nevertheless, the investment underlines Eutelsat’s belief in both a multi-orbit product and strengthens the commercial offer of both parties.
In anticipation of activating its network very soon, OneWeb has signed a promising hardware agreement with GDC Technics for the development, integration and certification of an electronically steered antenna (ESA) terminal for IFC. The missing piece of the puzzle is now the distribution partners for the Ku-band network – with announcements expected this year.
Anuvu: Anuvu has come out swinging since emerging from Chapter 11 in March 2021 as it looks to become more competitive against capacity owners, Inmarsat, Intelsat, and Viasat. A key component of its strategy is a multi-orbit network that will eventually be underpinned by Telesat’s Lightspeed LEO constellation.
For now, Anuvu intends to stick with the second-generation, triple-axis antenna it has developed in partnership with QEST. The service provider insists its hardware will cope with the demands of sourcing capacity from satellites in multiple orbits, citing upgrades made since conducting successful tests of its first-generation antenna over Telesat’s LEO and GEO satellites.
Inmarsat: Despite being one of many GEO stalwarts in the IFC segment, Inmarsat has seemingly acknowledged the threat posed by NGSO constellations in its unveiling of Orchestra, a multi-orbit communications network, back in July 2021. Orchestra paves the way for the U.K.-based operator to enter the LEO race through the buildout of its own constellation of 150-175 satellites that will be focused on mobility applications and due to come online in 2026.
Before then, Inmarsat will also see two satellites sent into a Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) to deliver coverage over the Arctic as part of a significant ramp up to its global Ka- and L-band coverage map.
Inmarsat has also refreshed its GX onboard hardware, selecting GDC Technics to supply an IFC terminal which consists of a Ka-band variant of Thinkom’s VICTS antenna and a dual-modem MODMAN from Kontron. For context, Thinkom’s low profile antenna is widely regarded as a solution capable of coping with the transition to multi-orbit connectivity in the absence of a certified electronically steered antenna for IFC. Inmarsat is one of a number of vendors to have selected a variant of the Thinkom VICTS antenna range for IFC.
Doubling Down on GEO
Viasat: Viasat is another of the major IFC players to be heavily invested in the GEO narrative and we are yet to see any strong intent to deviate from this path. And why would it? In 2022, the company is due to launch the first of three high-throughput satellites (HTS) that will massively expand Viasat’s global reach and capabilities.
Furthermore, in November 2021, Viasat announced its intent to acquire Ka-band rival Inmarsat, which, as outlined above, has also invested heavily in GEO and is unlikely to pivot anytime soon.
Interestingly though, Viasat has developed and recently performed in-flight demonstrations of its own ESA, built in partnership with the European space industry. The antenna is backward compatible with ViaSat-1 and -2 constellations, as well as the upcoming ViaSat-3 satellites, but will be initially deployed on SES’s O3b mPOWER network.
Yet to Move
Intelsat and Panasonic Avionics are notable among the list of IFC vendors yet to publicly announce a multi-orbit strategy. The former has previously spoken of its intent to build a multi-orbit network and is one of a number of vendors to have filed a request with the FCC seeking approval to launch a MEO constellation in the future. Intelsat is also still actively collaborating with OneWeb on government initiatives.
Panasonic Avionics, meanwhile, has announced it intends to deploy a Ku-band variant of Thinkom’s VICTS antenna as part of a next generation IFC terminal, citing the potential to support LEO and GEO satellites. This is perhaps an early indicator of Panasonic deciding how multi-orbit capacity factors into its IFC strategy. I’d argue it is essential if Panasonic is to preserve its installed base of 2,000+ aircraft, given how the IFC environment is evolving.
It should come as no surprise to have both Inmarsat and Viasat seated comfortably at the GEO-only table, for now at least, given what the next couple of years has in store in terms of satellite launches and the fact both account for more than 60 percent of the IFC backlog at the time of writing.
Those that have already embraced or show clear signs of pivoting toward multi-orbit services have arguably had to do something in the wake of increasing dominance by Inmarsat, Intelsat, and Viasat. With constellations still being built and hardware under development, there is clearly some way to go before we see any major impact of LEO and MEO networks on the IFC market, and GEO will reign supreme in the meantime. But we are edging closer to a multi-orbit reality in IFC, and we’ll see more announcements this year that further underscore the trend of vendors adapting to a new normal. VS
Daniel Welch is the co-founder of Valour Consultancy and a senior research consultant for the firm.