A Look Forward: Inflight Connectivity in 2022

Inflight connectivity has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. Passengers who were once off the grid when flying at 30,000 feet can now stay connected to the office, family, friends and the latest media content throughout their flights. These advancements have already revolutionized the inflight experience, and as technology continues to evolve, we’re sure to see improvements that enhance inflight connectivity even further.

But what do these potential advancements look like, and what do they mean for airlines and passengers?

Intelsat’s Mark Rasmussen, VP and GM, Mobility, recently shared his expert predictions on how inflight connectivity will advance by 2022. The below was submitted for the September issue of Aircraft Interiors International, and excerpts were included in the publication’s Connectivity 2022 feature.

• How speeds will compare with predicted internet speeds on the ground
Just a few years ago, passengers were limited to exchanging emails or simple web surfing, but aero connectivity today is closer to matching connectivity levels experienced on the ground. High-throughput satellites (HTS), combined with advances in antenna and modem technologies, are enabling the delivery of the higher throughput that enables more inflight uses, such as video. Recently, Intelsat and Gogo demonstrated the latest in onboard connectivity during a two-hour flight on a test aircraft. Using the Intelsat EpicNG platform, passengers connected 53 different devices and consumed 29GB of data at speeds as high as 100 Mbps.

• Costs to airlines – higher or lower?
The introduction of HTS technology is delivering enhanced performance for airlines at a time when broadband connectivity is becoming a key requirement for passengers. Let there be no doubt: our goal is to reduce the cost of bit delivered. And when paired with improved installation costs for more powerful hardware and reduced operational costs, this will support the development of a more cost-efficient mainstream inflight connectivity service. Airlines and service providers need to think through all of the business models: what should be free to customers, what should be for a fee, and whether there are aspects that could be sponsored.

• Worldwide coverage
With approximately 100,000 commercial flights scheduled every day around the world, aero service providers need the ability to deliver global coverage. This requires network infrastructure that scales, adapts and integrates emerging technologies. Our backwards compatible, open architecture network allows us to layer beams over the most highly trafficked areas while not sacrificing global footprint and resilience. In the future, the partnership between Intelsat and LEO satellite operator OneWeb will create the only HTS network to have pole-to-pole coverage, ensuring connectivity on flights even above the Polar Regions.

• Bandwidths
Intelsat is deploying Intelsat EpicNG payloads in all frequency bands, which will be optimized in the design of individual satellites depending upon the application and region being supported. The mix of frequency bands allows customers to choose the spectrum that best meets their needs. Some of our largest mobility customers did their analysis and asked for Ku-band services because their requirements are global in nature. We also think that with our Ku-band infrastructure, we can provide customers with services emanating from multiple orbital locations, providing the resilience and redundancy that has historically been a requirement of commercial-grade services.

• Hardware developments
The introduction of powerful HTS satellites is being matched by development of new flat panel antenna technologies which, together with new modems, allows much more efficient and flexible use of the satellite spectrum without impacting an aircraft’s aerodynamics. Tests with Intelsat EpicNG customers and ecosystem partners showed a 165% increase in spectral efficiency with traditional ground platforms and modem technologies and up to a 330% improvement in throughput when using next-generation antenna technology. Innovation in the sky and on the ground will be crucial to respond to the growing inflight connectivity demand.

• Reliability
Reliability of the service is crucial for passengers that expect consistent levels of connectivity throughout their flight. With airplanes flying the same flight paths during similar hours, spikes in demand can overload any network. Therefore, it is crucial to assure capacity over high-traffic routes. The satellite is likely the most reliable portion of the network, with five nines of reliability common. Layering HTS spot beams with traditional satellites provides the robustness and flexibility needed to meet the full range of requirements for seamless connectivity, including in areas of highest demand.