Aircell claims Ka-based airborne connectivity not realistic until 2015

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Published: June 8, 2011

Superfast Ka satellite-based in-flight connectivity holds much promise for airlines but it likely won’t become a realistic option in the United States or abroad until 2015, Aircell president and CEO Michael Small predicts.

Aircell’s ATG-based high-speed Internet solution Gogo has been fitted to myriad aircraft flying in the USA. In a candid conversation posted to Aircell’s blog, Small said: “We believe global Ka will revolutionize overseas connectivity similar to the way ATG did domestically. We’re particularly excited about what Immarsat’s doing in the space. That’s the primary reason Ka is an important part of our technology roadmap.”

Global Xpress is expected to offer speeds of up to 50MB/s and be available in the 2015 timeframe.

But not all carriers bent on offering Ka-based airborne connectivity are waiting for Global Xpress. JetBlue Airways has instead inked a deal with ViaSat to bring Ka to its 160-strong aircraft fleet starting next year. The service will be supported by ViaSat’s current WildBlue-1 satellite and high-capacity ViaSat-1 satellite, which is expected to launch this summer.

But despite JetBlue’s stated plans Aircell isn’t convinced that Ka will be ready for prime time on board aircraft in the US domestic market before 2015. “Before that date in the domestic market, based on our knowledge of what traffic patterns and usage will be, we have questions about the satellite coverage for large portions of the United States west of the Mississippi River. The technology was originally designed for terrestrial use that focused mainly on the coasts. This leaves a gap in coverage in the Midwest. Right now, it is unclear as to how that problem is going to be solved in the near to midterm,” claimed Small.

“Even if everything with the coverage gap is addressed and everything goes perfectly with the satellite launch, antenna development and certification, there’s no proven timeline for installation of the equipment in the aircraft. We know from our experience that this can be a major hurdle. We’re hoping for everything to align so we can effectively add Ka to our technology mix, but there are too many uncertainties at this point to expect that before 2015.”

Aircell believes its current ATG service and next generation ATG-4 service will solve any coverage or capacity deficiencies in the centre of the United States “so we’ve optimistically put Ka in our roadmap beginning in 2013, despite the other unresolved issues. But, again, we don’t see Ka as a standalone solution domestically until 2015 or beyond,” said Small.

“Our plan is to phase Ka in where it makes the most sense as soon as it becomes available and supplement it with our ATG and ATG-4. We will then continue to evaluate our technology mix as Ka becomes a more proven solution in the marketplace.”

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