A roadmap for success

The next decade will see huge changes in the connectivity landscape. Here’s how Inmarsat is helping airlines to future-proof their operations and passenger experience

This year marks Inmarsat’s 40th anniversary – and like all milestones, it’s a good time to reflect and think about the challenges ahead. In the sphere of inflight connectivity, the changes over the next decade will be enormous.

Rising customer expectations and fluid demand will place pressures on capacity, ageing networks and legacy technologies. However, these challenges also represent significant opportunities. The airlines that can deliver what customers want will reap huge rewards in areas ranging from customer loyalty to efficiency savings to new business. Conversely, airlines that do not do enough risk losing customers, market share and revenue streams.

The past few decades have seen radical alterations in what customers expect from airlines across the board. More recently, we’ve also seen significant changes in what customers want in terms of connectivity and the digital environment. There are a number of drivers here. The biggest is simply what people are used to. Since its appearance in 2007, the smartphone has got people used to being connected everywhere and at all times. Naturally, they expect that in the air too.

Changing demands

But there are other factors at work here. If people are to be sitting in one place for hours, they now expect streaming TV and movies, thanks to Netflix and Amazon. This and a video-heavy internet has led to huge increases in demand for bandwidth, as have aircraft and crew data and communications. It would be nice to think that this is a straightforward business opportunity where airlines can charge for going online. But, as hotels know, most people are not willing to pay for Wi-Fi. Rather, they expect it free and if you won’t provide it, they’ll find someone who does.

Finally, the green message about flying has got through to most people. Earlier this year, the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute published a report looking at the future of aviation. Among other metrics, the research ranked airlines by CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre. The news here is not good – by 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005 and the International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts that by 2050 they could grow by a further 300-700%. Having the best connectivity is a key factor in reducing CO2 as it enables everything from real time flight adjustments to long-term machine learning with a view to maximising efficiency.

Consumers (and businesses) expect more from airlines and are likely to vote with their wallets, favouring the carriers who deliver what they want and eschewing those who don’t. This isn’t just about filling seats, either. The airlines that offer more will be able to activate significant ancillary revenue streams in areas ranging from entertainment to partnerships with on-ground retailers.

A knock-on effect of the desire for more bandwidth is a fast-growing demand for connectivity from the airlines themselves. Networks, both on the ground and satellites, will see ever greater demands placed on them. This will pose particularly acute challenges for providers who simply lease bandwidth from satellite owners – and airlines who use these providers may also find themselves constrained. They may not be able to be as flexible as their customers want them to be. Furthermore, greater demands and congestion means that if there are crashes and outages the effects are likely to be worse and last longer.

Inmarsat Aviation President Phil Balaam with Airbus Head of Space Systems, Nicolas Chamussy

An increasingly volatile world

There is also increased concern about the environmental impact of the data and telecoms industries. This is part of the reason that companies like Google have committed to buying 100% renewable energy for their operations such as data centres and offices. Airlines, like everyone else, want to be able to demonstrate greenery throughout their supply chains.

Finally, we live in an increasingly volatile world. In areas as diverse as weather and geopolitics the planet is not as stable as it was even ten years ago. This affects connectivity both directly and indirectly. Obviously, a severe unexpected storm or significant civil unrest could cause communications outages. But the indirect effects are perhaps more widespread.

The consideration here is that if you do have problems with capacity, they may be exacerbated by poor weather or political unrest. With a backdrop of increased instability, having a leading connectivity provider with plenty of redundancy is more important than it might otherwise be.

Inmarsat is such a provider. In fact, it’s the only global provider that owns and operates its own satellites. What this means is that that, over the past 40 years, the company has invested in a worldwide network, with plenty of redundancy which is both flexible and future proof. Over the next decade it has a strategy to build on this system in order to deliver what airlines need in the years to come.

Companies which lease bandwidth cannot say this. In fact, all they can say is that they’ll try to lease more bandwidth if airlines demand it. They are entirely at the mercy of their suppliers and if their suppliers do not want to play ball or have other priorities, they have little room for manoeuvre. Naturally, this can affect their customers, the airlines and their customers – the passengers.

But Inmarsat’s pitch is far more than just owning satellites and being prepared. Rather, it owns and operates an entire network which takes in the planes, ground-based communications, mobile comms, software and so on. It’s a vast, globe spanning-ecosystem and what this means in practice is a far more flexible and far more resilient service.

To take just a few examples, specialist software means that data is routed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Multiple ground stations mitigate the effects of bad weather. Equipment on planes is cutting edge and is designed to work perfectly with the rest of the system. This also means quicker upgrades and faster responses to demand. There’s huge redundancy. Outside the Arctic, two satellites can fail and coverage will still be available to Inmarsat customers.

What’s more, new technology is coming online all the time.

The connected future

Towards the end of this year (2019), Inmarsat will be improving coverage over the Middle East to meet increasing demand in this fast-growing area. A next-generation satellite (GX5) will offer thousands of dynamic beams which can, if necessary, be focussed to increase capacity on a single aircraft. Services will be better, faster and cheaper.

In 2021 and 2022, Inmarsat’s I-6 F1 and F2 satellites will offer Ka and L-band dual payloads globally. Again, this will meet growing demand and support 5G which is crucial for both the future of mobile communications and the Internet of Things.

2021 to 2023 will see the launch of GX7, 8 and 9 satellites. These will be genuinely revolutionary and disruptive – able to deliver thousands of spot beams simultaneously and to instantly provide more capacity where it is lacking. They will be a true solution to fluid demand and, what’s more, they are programmable remotely. They’re also high modular and easy to produce and launch in batches, which makes it easier and faster to deliver more long-term overall capacity when and where it’s needed.

2023 will also see the launch of GX10A and B satellites. These will travel in long looping orbits over the poles and will deliver much better, more reliable coverage over the Arctic, which is currently the only area where the possibility of outages exists. They will mean Inmarsat’s redundancy and resilience is truly global.

Of course, passengers are unlikely to know much of this. But what they will know is that their favourite airline delivers the sort of connectivity and digital experience they are used to on the ground. Perhaps they’ll notice too that their flight is a little smoother and their carrier a little greener. The airline’s business partners will know all this and they’ll be likelier to choose the airline for future partnerships too. The airline will, quite simply, be better connected and more competitive.

So as our skies get busier and digital demands increase, Inmarsat’s roadmap for capacity growth will ensure airline passengers remain online when they want and where they want.