The 1,000-piece puzzle of bringing inflight Wi-Fi to the world’s airline passengers is coming together fast in 2016, as hardware and service providers acquire type certifications from air safety regulators, secure contracts with airlines and begin the laborious process of installing hardware, aircraft by aircraft.
Service providers like Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE), Gogo and Panasonic Avionics are expected to pursue the process in earnest this fall.
Gogo, for example, says its 2Ku inflight connectivity kit is now fitted to 10 aircraft split among three airlines—AeroMexico, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic—with plans to grow that number to between 75-100 aircraft by the end of the year.
In the first half of 2016 the company grew its 2Ku backlog to more than 1,200 with awards from Delta, International Airlines Group (IAG) and American Airlines, and the FAA has approved six Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs) needed to install 2Ku hardware on various types of aircraft.
“Now that we have some key STCs in hand, and with the summer travel season nearing an end, we will start to see installs pick up,” Gogo president and CEO Michael Small told investors in August. “We expect to end the year with between 75-100 2Ku installs. We plan to have an additional 350-450 2Ku installs in 2017.”
Small said Gogo was building its supply chain capacity to install kits on at least 750 aircraft per year. So far the company has received STCs to install 2Ku on narrow body Airbus A319s and Boeing 737-800s, and the widebody A330 and A340.
In addition, July marked the first factory retrofit of a 2Ku system installed on the Airbus A350.
“We’ve now flown over 3,500 flights with 2Ku,” Small said, noting that AeroMexico is now offering passengers free Netflix streaming on 2Ku flights. “As we deliver more and more bandwidth, we expect that we will continue to see a whole new range of opportunities from our airline partners,” he said, adding that one of the benefits of 2Ku is that it can be upgraded remotely without taking an aircraft out of service.
Gogo began as an air-to-ground connectivity service provider with a network of towers in the US. The company gradually moved to satellite-based broadband to deliver higher throughput and lower costs per bit. But when Gogo encountered capacity issues, competitors like GEE and Panasonic Avionics, and satellite fleet operators Inmarsat and ViaSat Inc., began offering a mix of connectivity solutions in various regions.
Like Gogo, GEE has been making headway in completing aircraft installations, gaining STC approvals and lining up airline contracts.
In the second quarter of this year, the company installed its Airconnect system on 30 aircraft, “the highest number of installs since the formation of GEE, bringing our total to nearly 750 installed planes,” GEE CEO Dave Davis told investors in August, adding that he expects an even greater install rate in the second half of 2016. “We continue to see solid growth rates in the aviation market with the inflight connectivity market growing in the 20% range, and content in the 8%-10% range annually.”
The company recently completed an agreement to provide connectivity services to Avianca Brasil using spectrum in place over South America that GEE acquired with the recent purchase of Miramar, Florida- based Emerging Markets Communications (EMC), a provider to the maritime and land mobility markets. Avianca Holdings has been a GEE content customer since June last year.
GEE says it is now investing in Ku-band capacity from a variety of fleet operators while expanding plans to incorporate Ka-band capacity, notably with the Hughes Network Systems network and the Jupiter-2 satellite slated to launch in November.
“We’ve also been adding a Ka- aperture to a new antenna program and expect to certify our Ka- antenna in early 2017,” GEE EVP aviation Josh Marks, said, adding that the company was in the process of offering the Ka-band option to new customers.
In the meantime, rival Panasonic Avionics, with its eXConnect service, has been using a global Ku-band satellite network to deliver broadband connectivity to aircraft flying all over the world.
Panasonic recently announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with UAE-based Yahsat to explore new ways to offer broadband connectivity to mobile markets in the Middle East within the next 3-5 years.
In addition, the MOU allows both parties to explore the launch of a Yahsat satellite constellation that would serve Panasonic’s general mobility needs in aviation, maritime and ground transportation, while giving Yahsat the ability to use Panasonic communication technologies and services.
Under the terms of the MOU, the companies will consider the type of frequency to be used, coverage and capacity needed to serve flight routes in the region, the type of antenna and radome, and certification requirements.
In July Panasonic announced an increase in its commitment from China Eastern Airlines for global broadband connectivity, growing from 20 aircraft announced last November to 84 aircraft.
The extended agreement includes 35 line-fit aircraft and an extensive retrofit program covering an additional 49 aircraft.
Mobile communications services provider Inmarsat is also seeing gains in its aeronautical connectivity play. The London-based fleet operator has built a business based on its legacy L-band mobile communications segment, and has recently expanded with the new Ka-band Global Xpress network, with three satellites currently in orbit.
Inmarsat is also building an air-to-ground system in Europe, a move it says is driven by the density of air traffic there, which is too high to be handled by satellites alone. The company is likewise building a complementary ground component with Deutch Telekom to support a space-based system with a satellite that is expected to launch next year.
Citing the continued uptake of aviation connectivity services among the world’s airlines, Inmarsat CFO Tony Bates says there are “2,800 aircraft now at the RFI [request for information] stage,” or beyond.
“There’s an awful lot of potential revenue out there, and this is grinding through fairly slowly, but it is still grinding through,” he said.
Between Global Xpress and the planned European air-to-ground network, CEO Rupert Pearce said is positioned to remain competitive in Europe against rivals, notably ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, California, which already has one massive high-throughput Ka-band satellite in orbit and another slated to launch this year.
ViaSat is also planning a new network dubbed ViaSat-3 that is expected to deliver a global high-speed Ka-band broadband service by the end of the decade.
In an August conference call with investors, Pearce said that while ViaSat-3 is “no longer a mythical beast,” he noted that the constellation is still in development.
“It isn’t funded. It isn’t designed. It isn’t built. It certainly isn't launched. So we’re tilting at windmills a little bit here,” he said. “But from what we know about ViaSat-3 today … we will be fully competitive in Europe like for like.”
ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg says his company’s inflight connectivity business continues to grow, with its Exede service deployed on 509 commercial aircraft as of the end of June this year.
“New aeronautical services contracts with American Airlines and the US government highlight the unique and compelling competitive advantages of affordable, high-bandwidth mobility services,” Dankberg told investors in August.
ViaSat was recently awarded a sole-source contract to provide global inflight connectivity service to Air Force One and other US government senior leader aircraft. The company says its government mobile broadband internet service is deployed on more than 400 government platforms.
On the commercial side, American Airlines selected ViaSat’s high-speed inflight internet service for the new Boeing 737 MAX fleet, with service availability planned for September 2017.
ViaSat also recently received a series of STC approvals from the FAA covering hybrid Ku-/Ka-band satellite antennas for the Airbus A320 type aircraft primarily deployed on Virgin America.