For Faster Inflight Wi-Fi, the Satellites Have Arrived and the Antennas Are on the Way

By Mark Rasmussen, Vice President & General Manager, Mobility 

Anyone who has tried to connect to the Internet from an airplane over the past couple of years has experienced the quality progression of inflight Wi-Fi. Passengers have gone from no connectivity initially to having the ability to just exchange emails or read web sites. Now, passengers expect to be able to access the entire web’s content, including synchronizing heavy files in the cloud and streaming their favorite TV show while remaining connected on social media. And with service providers now upgrading their infrastructures to high throughput satellites, consumers are getting everything they want and more.

Two innovations in particular are driving this improvement. First, new high-throughput satellites such as Intelsat EpicNG can deliver the much larger volumes of data that passengers are seeking thanks to their multi-spot design. Second, the introduction of these powerful 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 while improving the craft’s aerodynamics, and therefore its fuel consumption.

Intelsat and Gogo demonstrated the latest in onboard connectivity in early May during a two-hour flight out of Newark International Airport with a plane full of aviation and technology journalists. Gogo had equipped the airliner with its new 2Ku antenna developed by ThinKom Solutions and the latest generation satellite modem built by Gilat, all connected to Intelsat 32e, our first Intelsat EpicNG satellite. During the flight, the journalists connected 53 different devices to the Internet, moving 29GB of data at speeds as high as 100 Mbps while they used Facetime, Netflix, Facebook Live, and other high-bandwidth services to test the capabilities of the system.

One reporter wrote that the connection on the airplane was “three to four times above my home broadband connection.” That seems to be a pretty good indication that the future of airplane Wi-Fi is going to make a lot of passengers quite satisfied with their inflight Internet connections.

Gogo has said it has contracts in place to add the 2Ku technology to 1,600 aircraft by the end of 2018. In addition to Gogo’s 2Ku antenna, a number of other designs are coming to market. One is from Phasor, an Intelsat partner that has developed a phased-array antenna technology particularly suited for the business aviation market. These flat-panel antennas are able to keep a connection to satellite from a fast-moving airplane because they can track the satellite’s position without any directional adjustment.

The consulting company Northern Sky Research (NSR) estimates that sales of flat-panel satellite antennas could reach $9.1 billion annually in the next decade, primarily from the aero market as airlines around the world retrofit existing aircraft and manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus fit the antennas into new airplanes.

These are the types of new and larger applications that Intelsat’s innovations are unlocking for our customers.  The experience of implementing Intelsat EpicNG and bringing it to our customers has affirmed our beliefs about the potential of HTS, and within the next 18 months, Intelsat will have full global coverage with our EpicNG satellites. We will layer this on top of our existing wide beam constellation, and later be able to hand off to the Low Earth Orbit constellation OneWeb which extends coverage over the poles, to provide a seamless global fabric of high-speed mobile broadband.

This approach, combining higher performance and technology innovations with the ability to cover the globe and scale services easily, gives Intelsat a distinct advantage over other operators with only a few geosynchronous satellites. Our layer upon layer of connectivity ensures that airline passengers will continue to get the fastest possible Internet connection in the years to come.

Interested in learning more about inflight connectivity? Visit our Inflight Connectivity Resource Center

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