Engineered for aviation

The importance of consistent, reliable connectivity as a platform for service innovation


You’re at 35,000 feet. You’ve paid a small fortune for Wi-Fi. You’re mid-purchase, mid-movie or mid-message and connectivity fails. You’ve hit one of those black spots or drop out zones. Or just too many passengers are sharing the bandwidth at the same time. It’s the kind of experience that drives thousands of frustrated travellers to vent on social media every week. You want your money back. But worse than that, your brand relationship is damaged – possibly for good.

There’s little doubt inflight broadband is a bonus for passengers, and a platform for airlines to build service innovations that don’t just unlock new ancillaries, but a whole new ecosystem of revenue streams. However, if the service isn’t up to the promise, there’s a real danger that investment is wasted and may even backfire on the brand.

All of which could explain why the inflight connectivity market has been buffering for years, and why most airlines have been reluctant to explore fully the opportunities it brings. Faced with unreliable, inconsistent broadband service, many carriers have lacked the confidence to go all in. But the growing demand of passengers, and the lure of incremental returns, means Wi-Fi is no longer a nice-to-have. So what kind of Wi-Fi is required?

Matching demand as it rises

Reliability and quality of service are key. Inmarsat’s GX Aviation delivers uninterrupted, high-speed Wi-Fi worldwide, powered by Global Xpress, the world’s first global Ka-band satellite network, and the only network built specifically to address global mobility. It’s the product of a network strategy engineered to meet the needs of aviation, ensuring consistent coverage and capacity today, and a commitment to match demand as it rises.

Global Xpress’ three HTS satellites, with a fourth as ‘in orbit’ back up, cover the globe with a seamless layer of high speed capacity, exceeding the requirements of any known aviation customer. But airline demand is never spread evenly. A consistent service requires additional capacity targeted across congested flight routes and around busy airport hubs at peak times. So Inmarsat directs additional capacity, precisely where it’s needed, meaning a fast, reliable, consistent quality of service wherever planes fly.

An Ariane 5 space rocket with a payload of four Galileo satellites lifts off from ESA's European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on November 17, 2016. 
Ariane 5 successfully launched on November 17 four satellites which will be part of the Galileo global satellite navigation system. / AFP / jody amiet        (Photo credit should read JODY AMIET/AFP/Getty Images)

And where congestion is greatest, and demand highest, Inmarsat has invested in unique solutions. Launching this year, the European Aviation Network is the world’s first integrated satellite and air-to-ground network, combining a dedicated S-band satellite and around 300 LTE ground towers, to provide the same, reliable, consistent, high-speed service right across Europe’s busy airspace.

A commitment to reliability

What’s critical here is control. Inmarsat owns and operates these entire proprietary networks. As a result, it can allocate and reserve capacity for its airline customers, wherever they need it across the globe. And should they need more, Inmarsat can add further capacity – like the recently announced fifth ultra HTS satellite in addition to the two next generation satellites already on order, or by increasing the density of European Aviation Network towers – giving airlines the flexibility to dial up (or down) their purchase as the market evolves.

This certainty of current and future capacity makes Inmarsat the only connectivity provider that can contractually commit to a guaranteed data rate for its customers, alongside a binding long-term agreement on price. The same kind of commitment to reliability explains why Inmarsat is trusted to provide safety-critical cockpit data services to close to 200 airlines and over 90% of the world’s transoceanic aircraft.

double exposure of hand holding model plane

By comparison, many alternative providers rely on leasing capacity across a wide range of satellites from multiple operators in the fixed satellite service (FSS) industry. The historical limitations of inflight broadband services show this approach has drawbacks.

Primarily this is because it’s a patchwork, not a single service. That’s the reason for those black spots and failures – inconsistent service quality, gaps in coverage and drop outs as planes try to disconnect from one satellite network and connect to another.

What’s more, relying on others creates challenges for reliability, because capacity isn’t always available where airlines need it. Even in the Ku-band, served by several hundred satellites, only a few are compatible with aircraft terminals, and the vast majority are dedicated to services other than aviation, like video distribution and broadcast, for which these satellites were actually designed.

There are new Ku HTS satellites, but HTS beams are unavailable to lease exclusively, and the resulting managed service model means customers may have to share the bandwidth. That’s fine for aircraft that are far away from busy air routes, but around crowded hubs it means capacity on a first come first served basis, or spreading it around thinly so no one aircraft gets all it requires.

Over the past 30 years, the FSS market has endured cycles of over- and under-supply leading to fluctuations in price. Currently the market is enjoying the results of speculative investment that began about five years ago. The reselling model assumes this over-supply will continue, even though excess capacity works against the economic interests of suppliers. So when the demand from aviation increases, there’s no reason to be confident that operators’ timeframes or priorities will align with resellers’ needs.

Without a completely reliable service, connectivity-dependent services simply don’t make sense. Customer satisfaction and conversion to sale depend on airlines delivering a seamless service every time – a second-rate passenger experience will not be acceptable, now or in the future. Airlines will struggle to sell live sporting events if the video stops to buffer every 30 seconds. And they won’t be able to fulfil retail partnerships if they can’t deliver passengers who want to shop.

The connectivity revolution, and the advent of the digital airline, will rely on high quality, consistent broadband connectivity. Only Inmarsat is able to contractually commit to quality of service directly with the airline, over a network designed to deliver it to each aircraft worldwide. The new ancillary revenue streams need a constant, reliable platform. Inmarsat’s global network services, and the guarantees that come with them, are the firm foundations the industry requires.