GX5 – the countdown begins

The next stage in the future of inflight connectivity prepares for take-off

The next decade will see the capabilities of high-speed, inflight broadband transformed once again. Thanks to Inmarsat’s fully-funded and committed roadmap, the world’s only global high-speed connectivity services for airlines and business aviation, GX Aviation and Jet ConneX, will enter a dynamic new era. And the future begins on Friday 22nd November 2019.

On that day, the world’s foremost satellite launch company, Arianespace, will send one of its Ariane 5 heavy-lift launchers into geostationary transfer orbit from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. It will carry Inmarsat’s fifth Global Xpress satellite, GX5, and this will move into position 35,786km (22,236 miles) above Earth.

Ariane 5 launch

A major boost for capacity

The launch of GX5 is hugely significant, boosting capacity in the Middle East and Europe. At a time of increasing customer demand for connectivity and rising passenger expectations, this launch demonstrates Inmarsat’s commitment to infrastructural investment.

The next generation GX5 satellite will deliver more capacity than the entire existing GX satellite fleet combined into the region. This significant increase will enable Inmarsat to guarantee a best-in-class service today and, crucially, it will mean this gold standard is assured for the future. GX5 will be fully integrated into the existing Global Xpress network. The backwards compatibility of the system means that existing customers will also benefit from the increased capability, as their inflight connectivity markets grow.

“As demand for inflight Wi-Fi continues to accelerate, additional capacity is needed to meet long-term future growth. We have spent the last five years planning and investing in our technology roadmap, to ensure that we can confidently continue to meet this growing demand for connectivity,” said Philip Balaam, President of Inmarsat Aviation.

The launch of GX5 forms the next stage of Inmarsat’s unrivalled technology roadmap. In the years to come, seven more new generation satellites will be sent into orbit, ensuring that Inmarsat stays ahead of passenger demand, and offers its customers critical commercial advantages.

Challenges and opportunities

The next 10 years will see airlines face enormous connectivity challenges. Alongside the capacity pressures and more sophisticated passenger expectations (Inmarsat’s latest Inflight Connectivity Survey found that of those who feel that Wi-Fi is fundamental to daily life, 66% believe inflight Wi-Fi is an absolutely necessity), there are also issues concerning the fluidity of demand and pressures on ageing and legacy technology.

Of course, these challenges represent opportunities for those innovative airlines that are ahead of the inflight connectivity curve. Providing passengers with the broadband service they desire will result in increased customer satisfaction and a better passenger experience. This will engender new levels of customer loyalty and provide customer data that airlines can use to better personalise passenger offers.

GX Aviation can also help unlock the potential of ancillary revenue, alongside e-commerce, advertising, sponsorship and premium content. In its comprehensive Sky High Economics survey, the London School of Economics estimated this to be worth $130bn to the industry by 2035.

And then there are the operational benefits. The second chapter of Sky High Economics found that inflight connectivity could save the airline industry $15bn a year, thanks to efficiencies in areas such as fuel consumption and emissions, maintenance and flight optimisation, fleet utilisation, airspace capacity and aircraft and passenger safety.

Committed to mobility and aviation

Discussing the launch of GX5, Inmarsat Aviation Senior Vice President, Kurt Weidemeyer, says the satellite is testament to Inmarsat’s commitment to mobility and aviation.

When we sign a contract and we commit to an airline, capacity and a certain passenger experience, we are going to meet that commitment. Even if we have to put up a new satellite.

“No other competitor has ever launched a satellite specifically for an airline customer – or two or three,” he explains. We ordered a satellite specifically to meet the demands of a couple of very large customers. Because of our architecture and our backwards compatibility, it'll support all the airlines that fly today and support all the business aviation aircraft that fly today.

“It's a great testament that when we sign a contract and we commit to an airline, capacity and a certain passenger experience, we are going to meet that commitment. And that's exactly what we did with GX5.”

Building on the success of GX4, which was launched in May 2017 to provide additional capacity, GX5 will provide customers with extra redundancy, capacity and flexibility. These powerful, next-generation satellites are optimised for real-time mobility and feature thousands of dynamically-formed beams that direct capacity with precision over high-demand areas. The new satellite is significantly more powerful than any previous GX satellite, is 25 per cent smaller and was delivered much more quickly, in just two and a half years from order to launch.

GX5 launch tile

“The coverage is going everywhere from Europe to the Middle East,” says Weidemeyer. “And any aircraft flying through those routes are going to be able to benefit from that satellite.”

The passengers on those flights will experience high-speed broadband comparable to the service that they enjoy on the ground. Neale Faulkner, Inmarsat Aviation’s Regional Vice President Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA), pinpoints a particular change that the trendsetting flyers across this region are helping to pioneer – on demand TV.

“It’s a change from the linear TV that we're used to in the air,” he says. “It's more of an on-the-ground experience, in the air. So you can pause, stop and rewind live sports events. You can cache them on board. It really is a step change in the way that that TV will be consumed in the aircraft, and GX is an enabler for this.”

Faulkner says voice and video services are also becoming more popular on Middle East airlines. “As an example, I saw someone doing a webinar with their business recently on a GX-equipped flight, which I thought was a fantastic use.”

Man on laptop inflight

A track record of future-proofing

For 40 years, Inmarsat has consistently demonstrated proven satcom leadership and innovation. This heritage of global coverage and flexible capacity is at the heart of its future roadmap.

Powered by Global Xpress, it’s the world’s only global Ka-band connectivity network. Its HTS satellites cover the globe with a seamless layer of high capacity spot-beam coverage, ensuring a reliable, consistently high quality service over all major flight routes. Indeed, it offers the only fully redundant network in existence.

GX is also wholly owned and operated by Inmarsat. As other providers don’t control their networks, they can’t assure redundancy. Subsequently, they often fail to deliver reliable, high-speed services. And because they lease capacity, they can’t manage or control their space or ground networks or plan according to demand.

A roadmap with certainty

The future doesn’t end with the launch of GX5 though. Over the next four years there are a further seven launches scheduled that will see the capabilities, capacity and agility of Global Xpress transformed.

In 2021 and 2022, advanced Ka-band payloads will be hosted on Inmarsat’s next-generation Inmarsat-6 (I-6) L-band satellites, GX6A and 6B – ideal for the emerging 5G era. This will add more layers over the some of the world’s most congested hubs to meet increasing demand.

This is followed between 2021 and 2023 with the development of the most agile, flexible, diverse and cost-effective constellation ever conceived. GX7, 8 and 9 will underpin the most exciting step-change since inflight connectivity began. Airline and business aviation customers will benefit from the satellites’ real-time mobility and thousands of dynamically formed beams that can direct capacity with laser-like precision over high-demand areas.

Whenever a customer flies from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Auckland they're going to get the same fantastic service delivered seamlessly.

Kurt Weidemeyer says this is crucial because it will enable capacity to be tailored exactly where it is needed. This is the key for mobility, he says, and something that no other provider can deliver.

“We're ensuring that whenever a customer flies from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Auckland they're going to get the same fantastic service delivered seamlessly,” he says. “No one else can make that guarantee because their networks aren't built for mobility.”

Finally, in 2023, two new payloads – GX10A and 10B – will provide airline and business aviation customers with even more capacity. They will be the first satellites in the GX network to be placed into Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO).

With the new polar satellites, we will have seamless connectivity across the whole polar region.

Neale Faulkner says this is good news for those airlines flying over the Arctic region.

“With the new polar satellites, we’ll have seamless connectivity across the whole polar region,” he says. “So if you’re flying Dubai to LAX for example, you can watch the football match and stay in contact. Passengers are going to love that. It’s a really big win for the airlines, particularly in the Middle East who do have a high frequency of polar routes.” 

The best just keeps getting better

The level of investment Inmarsat is committing, allied to the scale of its roadmap, indicates that the future for inflight connectivity is bright. Its infrastructure has been designed to ensure it can flex and grow to accommodate the new challenges that aviation’s demands will present.

All of which means that if you thought the inflight connectivity revolution was complete, think again. This transformation has only just begun.