Low-Earth Expectations: Are Geostationary Satellites Finally Being Eclipsed?

Illustration by Eduardo Leblanc

Geostationary satellites rule the in-flight connectivity space today, but emerging constellations suggest they won’t be the only choice for seamless global coverage in the near future.

Low- and middle-Earth-orbit (LEO and MEO) satellites are poised to shake up legacy geostationary (GEO) operations – at least that’s what the current flow of investor capital in the satellite market suggests.

“You need to look at which satellites are being launched and ordered. The money is all being directed to LEO constellations,” says Alexis Steinman, senior vice-president of Aviation for Global Eagle, which partnered with Telesat to test LEO–GEO handoff in October last year. “We specifically switched over a Ka-band antenna from GEO to LEO and back to GEO to demonstrate we can do this, free of interruptions, while video chatting and continuing with the normal Wi-Fi usage,” he says.

Coverage and capacity are key to any inflight-connectivity offering, and combined, LEO and MEO constellations are expected to spread significant bandwidth over the Earth from numerous inclined orbits, as opposed to the fixed belt that GEO satellites sit on. LEO and MEO satellites also make it easier to scale capacity up and down over busy flight hubs and their proximity to flying aircraft enables low-latency fiber-quality connectivity, which is ideal for time-critical communications.

There are technological considerations to be had on the ground, however. Tracking one of these satellites is like aiming at a moving target. Because they whizz above the Earth at a much faster rate than the speed of GEO satellites, they require sophisticated antennas to monitor their whereabouts – not to mention that emerging constellations comprise hundreds and even thousands of satellites.

GEO satellites are more or less fixed in how they allocate bandwidth and cover a larger area with just one satellite. Eutelsat 172B, for example, has been leased by Panasonic Avionics to target high-traffic Asian and transpacific flight paths for inflight connectivity and live TV services as well as by mobile service provider China Unicom to cover that region. But in March last year, the satellite operator, which has long defended the future of GEO, announced it would be commissioning its own LEO satellite for spectrum and data analysis.

“We believe LEO satellites are well suited for IoT [Internet of Things] applications given their low bitrate,” says Jags Burhm, senior vice-president, Aero Global Mobility, Eutelsat. “But we continue to believe GEO is the best solution to respond to growing demand for video and broadband, including in-flight connectivity.”

Ultimately, mixing network architectures allows an airline to choose the best solution for any phase of flight, accounting for what coverage is available relative to the demand and its costs. And if the LEO and MEO constellations truly deliver on their promise, airlines should have plenty of choice for faster and cheaper connectivity going forward.

“Low-Earth Expectations” was originally published in the 9.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.