LEO IFC Presents the Promise of Unbridled Capacity Across the Globe
During the first panel session as part of the 2021 APEX/IFSA EXPO Thought Leadership conference, low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite providers Oneweb, Starlink and Telesat explained their plans for the in-flight connectivity (IFC) market.
Oneweb, Starlink and Telesat are all focused on adding a huge amount of capacity to the IFC market to cater to future passengers’ needs.
Philippe Schleret, Telesat’s Regional Sales VP, America, explained that demand from the next generation of passengers is set to increase for multiple reasons. Firstly, he said the type of applications people are starting to use more regularly are more bandwidth-intensive. Furthermore, as more airlines decide to provide some access to in-flight Wi-Fi for free, this will remove the cost barrier for many passengers and drive up take-up rates.
Finally, Shcleret said that if the service is poor quality, people won’t use the system, so adding more capacity and improving the experience will drive the need for more and more capacity in the long-run. For these reasons, Telesat’s goal is to provide enterprise-grade internet, just like fiber connections on the ground.
From the perspective of Ben Griffin, Oneweb’s VP Mobility, the addition of significant capacity also presents the opportunity to provide unprecedented value to airlines. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of that today. What we’re going to offer is not the ability to have a connected aircraft, but a connected airline,” he explained. In response to questions about how much capacity will actually be needed, Griffin said it’s fairly easy to plan based on how many aircraft an airline has on order and when they will be delivered.
Starlink’s VP Commercial Sales, Jonathan Hofeller, claimed that Starlink already boasts ten times the capacity of today’s geostationary satellites. He remained tight-lipped on an entry into service date for IFC, but confirmed that Starlink has launched 1,800 satellites across 20 countries so far, and that it is already testing the first version of its in-house antenna on aircraft today.
While Starlink is a vertically integrated company that designs and manufactures everything in-house, and Oneweb announced it is developing its own antenna together with GDC Advanced Technology, Schleret said Telesat is evaluating antennas that are already on the market, including Anuvu’s Airconnect product and ThinKom Solutions’ ThinAir Ka2517, both of which can also be used with GEO networks. It also has a pathway for an electronically steerable antenna, but that’s still in the development stage.
He confirmed that Telesat Lightspeed will begin launching satellites in 2023, and will be up and running across high latitudes including Northern Europe and the Transatlantic corridor in 2024 before entering full global service in 2025.
In answer to a question from Patrick Brannelly, Emirates’ SVP Retail, In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity, about how each operator was getting on in terms of gaining approval from individual governments to fly over certain countries, the responses were positive.
While Telesat has a dedicated team committed to the task and existing relationships as a result of 20 years in the commercial IFC industry, Hofeller said Starlink is going one-by-one to each country and that its ongoing work in disaster relief is speeding their entry into some markets. Griffin said the fact Oneweb has 40 ground gateways around the world helps to address the situation. However, as a mitigation plan, like Telesat, he said Oneweb’s terminals will also work on GEO networks to make sure the company can cover any market access gaps.
To find out more about LEO IFC, read about the recent APEX TECH webinar on the suitability of LEO connectivity for airline passengers.
How Can Airlines Change the Narrative Around their Approach to Sustainability?
The main takeaway from the panel discussion about “Creating Genuine Airline Environmental Sustainability” at the APEX/IFSA 2021 Thought Leadership Conference was that airlines must work harder to communicate with passengers and the general public about their existing sustainability initiatives, and to change the narrative being cultivated by mainstream media.
Star Alliance CEO Jeffrey Goh and JSX CEO Alex Wilcox used sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as an example of where the media’s message is skewed. Both agreed that we only ever hear about how SAF is the number one solution for airlines in terms of sustainability, but we don’t hear that the immaturity of its supporting infrastructure means that, as Wilcox put it, “it’s currently the most carbon-intensive type of fuel you can burn.”
Goh asked why the onus regarding SAF is always put solely on airlines, rather than governments, who can incentivize it, or airports, who can make it easier to access. Amir Amidi, managing director at Plug and Play, said it’s also a very long-term solution, bearing in mind that by 2030 we’re only likely to have enough SAF to support 10% of the global aircraft fleet.
That fact is one of the reasons why Wilcox believes airlines must be careful that in attempting to change the narrative they don’t over-promise and under-deliver. “We’re making lots of noise about electric aircraft and eVTOLs, but our fleets will look pretty much the same in 2030. That could backfire on us.”
Amy Gile, CEO at computer systems design company Silverdraft, said that travelers would probably respond better to information about the small sustainability steps being taken by airlines today anyway: “I don’t buy the long-term promises. I need things that I can understand explained to me in layman’s terms.”
For Amidi, the most meaningful thing airlines and suppliers can do is to “start in their own backyard and branch out from there.” He elaborated, “For Airbus – if you decided to only work with suppliers and vendors that have a good track record on ESG, it would take a while and mean you would discontinue many relationships, but it would be worth it.”
Gile added that airlines and suppliers should focus on the footprint of their computing systems, using data centres as an example of where huge emissions savings could be made using thoughtful design.
In terms of worst case scenarios should airlines not adequately deal with sustainability – both from a perception and a reality standpoint – the panelists’ responses were sobering. Goh suggested that, just as we’ve seen with COVID-19 vaccinations, the issue of sustainability could be politicized. “If we don’t do anything, governments will step in, then if airlines aren’t doing certain things they won’t be allowed into certain territories.”
Wilcox added that flight-shaming will get worse, and that “tamping down growth at airports will be massively exacerbated.” For JSX specifically, it’s an existential question.
Amidi, who deals with startups in Silicon Valley, said the worst case scenario for airlines would see new players capitalizing on the situation. “If you’re not going to address it, someone else will,” he stated.
Despite these facts, each panelist agreed that the airline industry continues to make meaningful changes to their operations to increase sustainability, even if that’s simply in the form of cutting out single-use plastics, and that with all the capital being invested in future technologies these meaningful changes will continue to grow.