Inflight Connectivity in a Post-COVID World
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of Satellite Pro Middle East.
While the aviation industry has been badly hit by the Covid pandemic, the vaccination roll-out that has been kicked off by many countries around the world gives us some hope that we might get back to some normality. And the industry seems to be getting ready for it. New routes are being operated, airlines are adding more flights and, for the first time since the pandemic began, we’ve seen more customers purchasing our monthly subscription than have cancelled it. With Boeing anticipating demand for 2,945 new aircraft in the Middle East over the next two decades, the future seems brighter.
Responding to passengers’ new needs
As lockdowns were imposed around the world to stop the pandemic spreading, people staying at home had to find new ways to work, study, entertain and socialise. Their reliance on digital technology skyrocketed as video calls, emails, instant-messaging and online streaming replaced face-to-face interactions, and global internet traffic surged by nearly 40% between February and April 2020, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). From Generation Z to baby boomers, everyone got used to being connected at all times, whether on a computer, a tablet, or a telephone. When it comes to connectivity, differences between generations have been dramatically reduced since the beginning of the pandemic, expectations have increased, and mobility is no longer seen as an obstacle. That’s a trend we expect will continue with the deployment of 5G networks that will transform the way we connect – even during a flight. Passengers expect the same level of connectivity onboard a plane that they have in their living-room, and airlines have to adapt to respond to the needs of the new digital adepts we have become accustomed to over the past 12 months in order to increase passenger satisfaction.
Anticipating these evolutions, Intelsat recently conducted a survey on Inflight Connectivity (IFC) to understand how inflight internet demand and service requirements have changed in light of the pandemic. The answers given by airlines, service providers, and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) reflect our own analysis: IFC is seen as a way to increase brand loyalty while saving on OPEX. 65% of respondents think that there will be an increase in the number of inflight passengers who expect to be connected, while 85% believe that “quality” inflight connectivity is a key differentiating factor for airlines. Remote, work-based applications such as video conferencing, cloud computing and VPN onboard are expected to become part of the onboard experience. However, respondents identified challenges that could prevent passengers from taking full advantage of these trends: prices and poor connection. But, with consumer demand for in-flight internet expected to grow by double digits (10%) annually over the next decade, airlines will be eager to develop modern ways to differentiate themselves and attract loyal customers.
A robust, always-on connectivity to help address challenges
Advancing digitalised operations will give operators the agility they need to address these new challenges but only if leveraged through an integrated, connectivity-ready ecosystem.
Satellite solutions help respond to these challenges by enabling robust inflight connectivity, even when flying at full capacity over the busiest airport hubs and along the most congested routes. Only global satellite operators like Intelsat, that have blanketed the earth with multiple layers of wide-beam and spot-beam capacity, can offer airlines the network to not only provide high-density coverage where it is needed most, but also a high-degree of redundancy should bandwidth become constrained or an asset encounter anomalies. In parallel, end-to-end managed solutions are specifically designed to help airlines respond to growing connectivity requirements – easily, quickly and cost effectively.
Next-generation, software-defined satellites, in which Intelsat is actively investing, will enable to dynamically adjust capacity configurations and utilisation while the satellites are in orbit, significantly improving the economic equation for customers, and making networks even more flexible, accessible, relevant and cost-effective for them. The integration of the right mix of technologies will enhance networks and power the new managed services brought to market for customers.
While there are some discussions on the performance of Ku- and Ka-bands, their availability and use to the aviation industry, the truth is that it has no impact on passengers – who only care about a reliable connection during their flight – or airlines, who typically pay the bills. Global constellations of Ku-band satellites combine wide-beam and spot-beam, ensuring a depth of coverage that provides end users with resiliency and redundancy unavailable in Ka-band. Switching between these Ku-band options to direct capacity to where it is needed most is possible because of the open architecture compatibility between Ku-band HTS and wide-beam satellites – an unequivocal advantage for airlines whose passengers expect reliable inflight connectivity at all times.
Defining the future of inflight connectivity
The way forward, to respond to the growing demand and take advantage of augmentation opportunities, is to rely on multi-orbit constellations. Only an aeronautical solution that has the proven ability to track and operate with both GEO and LEO satellites will enable airlines to leverage these opportunities. Also, a new class of incredibly powerful software-defined satellites that will launch over the next few years will allow capacity to be instantaneously reconfigured and repositioned in response to ever-changing customer demand.
Space innovation such as in-orbit servicing technology and Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV) also serves as a valuable and cost-effective tool to repair and extend the life of otherwise healthy, high-performing satellites. These mission-extension services represent a smart and efficient way to maintain existing fleets, preserve customers uninterrupted experience and free up even more resources to invest in advanced, next-generation technologies. The types of missions these satellite-preserving vehicles may be capable of managing in the near future could open many possibilities. Already, MEV-1 has enabled Intelsat 901 to return to service in April 2020, while Intelsat 10-02 will soon get an extra five years of life thanks to MEV-2.
However, innovation cannot only be space-based. Continued investment and development should also include higher-capacity servers, more efficient and higher-throughput modems, as well as more optimal antennas.
With in-flight connectivity rapidly becoming a must-have for passengers for operational optimisation, ensuring connectivity when and where airlines need it is of critical importance. Satellite innovations, combined with market leading terminal technology, ensure that airlines no longer need to make trade-offs on speed, reliability, availability, or coverage for in-flight internet.
Dave Bijur is a Senior Vice President for Intelsat’s Commercial Aviation business.