APEX Tech Webinar: Are Inter-Satellite Links the Future of IFC?


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A recent APEX Tech webinar, “The Consultant’s Corner: Suitability of LEOs for Airline Passengers,” explored the advent of new mega-constellations that operate in non-geostationary (NGSO) orbits and signal a move away from traditional geostationary (GEO) satellites. This round-up looks at the first part of the webinar.

Before the first part of the session began, each of the speakers gave their thoughts on the news about Viasat’s acquisition of Inmarsat and what it could mean for the aero market. NSR Analyst Brad Grady asked if the deal was a response to the emergence of low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, and how far the verticalization of the in-flight connectivity (IFC) market might go. 

All three panelists agreed that it creates a whole host of potential synergies. Nathan de Ruiter, Euroconsult Canada’s managing director, said that Viasat will benefit from access to new markets, such as maritime, as well as new customers in the lead-up to the launch of Viasat-3. He also believes that while Viasat-3 will concentrate connectivity in parts of Asia, Inmarsat’s network will provide it with valuable back-up capacity. 

Tim Farrar, president at Telecom, Media and Finance Associates, returned to this idea of a natural synergy between the two companies later when discussing the idea of inter-satellite links. He explained, “There’s 100 times the difference in capacity needed over an airport versus over the ocean. Viasat provides high-capacity regional coverage and Inmarsat has low-capacity global coverage.” 

However, while these synergies exist, Farrar is also aware of the potential for serious disruption to the IFC industry as a result of the acquisition. “Inmarsat’s business is almost 100% indirect … It is reliant on iDirect, ThinKom, Honeywell, etc. All of that is up in the air because Viasat is focused on supplying its own technology, on building everything itself.”

In a similar vein, Peter Lemme, president at Totaport and blogger at satcom.guru, posed a question about whether other players will now collect around Ka-band provider Thales, which recently launched SES-17, or whether operators like Eutelsat, Hughes and SES will decide they want to play a bigger role in the market. Even if the latter becomes the case, Grady pointed out that for airlines, the emphasis appears to be on the service provider and what they can offer, with the satellite operator being considered as an afterthought.

This discussion led into the first of the webinar’s key topics: “Tailwinds propelling airlines toward broadband mega-constellations.” Grady set the scene with a short presentation outlining the fact that many LEO satellites, with their smaller area of focus compared to GEOs, spend their time over the ocean where there’s no target population, creating the need for operators to maximize their utilization by honing in on mobility routes. 

De Ruiter said, “Demand is concentrated for 300 to 500 kilometers around airports. No single network can serve all that, so we do need more capacity and more bandwidth at those hotspots. There’s lots of focus on NGSO capacity as it can provide more throughput at a lower cost.” Nonetheless, the panelists recognised that it’s unlikely that NGSO satellites will have the capacity to serve these hotspots on their own. This is where Lemme said the idea came from for networks to have a “GEO overlay.”

Although an “integrated solution” may work best for the end-user, there are still questions about what this would look like. Grady argued, “The word “hybrid” means so many different things to different people. Does it mean having multiple providers, like we see in the US? Does it mean having a hybrid fleet, with some aircraft using GEO and some using LEO connectivity? The list goes on.” 

Lemme said that any aircraft that can switch between GEO and LEO connectivity will have to support two modems, but was optimistic about the availability of new technology that can support that. 

Farrar voiced concerns that network and technology designs are optimized for the highest source of capacity demand, which for Starlink, for example, will be the consumer business. In this scenario, Farrar said the goal would be to produce the lowest cost terminal, which may or may not be optimal for the IFC market, and might not deliver the quality of service that airlines and passengers demand. Despite this, de Ruiter said that airlines are still an attractive proposition for satellite operators, as their contracts can achieve large volumes.  

Grady rounded off the session by saying that inter-satellite links will be mission-critical for the next-generation of growth in IFC and across the broader communications industry, and that every company with global aspirations has the concept in its future roadmap somewhere. “I think everybody needs to do a little bit of everything in order to be successful,” he concluded.

APEX members can access the full recording of the webinar here.