Image: Bárbara Malagoli

What good is global coverage for in-flight connectivity if it doesn’t distribute bandwidth where it’s most needed?

Passengers don’t really care whether an airline has in-flight Wi-Fi coverage over Greenland if they’re not flying over it. With this in mind, Aditya Chatterjee, senior vice-president, Aero Market Segment Solutions at SES Networks, believes airlines may need to change the way they think about connectivity. Instead of pursuing regional, global coverage, he thinks they may want to focus on individual routes.

“If you look at a wide-body aircraft, it goes from country A to country B and makes the return trip to the original country several hours after that, day after day. That’s the business; that’s the enterprise,” he says. “An airline that has 200 wide-bodies has 200 small businesses. An airline considers each of these businesses individually, and so a route-wise approach makes even more sense.”

Using non-geosynchronous-orbit satellites (NGSOs), such as those that sit on a low-Earth orbit (LEO) or medium-Earth orbit (MEO), airlines could steer connectivity where they need it, when they need it. If an airline has a group of flights that depart from North America’s East Coast to Western Europe at around the same time, NGSOs with dynamic-beam capability could “follow” those aircraft across the transatlantic route and
over hubs as they land, maximizing data-handling capacity.

SES’ first-generation constellation of 20 MEO satellites, O3b, was completed in April, but has been operating as a maritime connectivity solution for the past five years. “It’s a proven model, therefore our next-generation system is based on a proven business case,” Chatterjee says, adding that what makes SES’ solution unique is that it will be the only operator to offer a geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO)/MEO service, operating in Ku- and Ka-bands.

By 2022, SES expects to have its second-generation MEO constellation, O3b mPower, up and running. The seven satellites of this constellation will integrate into the existing MEO infrastructure. “At that point, we will be introducing our aero services based on our GEO/MEO network,” Chatterjee says.

Although no other satellite provider offers SES’ particular solution, there are other GEO players that operate NGSOs, such as Telesat. It’s aiming to create a mesh network of approximately 200 initial LEO satellites around the world, with plans to cover the polar regions, says Erwin Hudson, vice-president, Telesat LEO, citing an “increasing interest in polar routes for flights between Asia and North America.” The operator also expects to have its LEO constellation in service by 2022.

“Down to the Route” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.