Whether it’s watching football, joining a video conference, getting the low down on your children’s latest school achievements or simply catching up with friends, the real measure of inflight connectivity is in the phone ringing or the email chiming, isn’t it? Passengers expect the phone to work in the air just as it does on the ground and, if they’re entirely honest, most bizjet and VIP flyers really don’t think about the network, service provider or hardware… if it works, it’s good. If it doesn’t, it’s not.
There are multiple connectivity options to consider, and while each provider has a USP or two, is there actually more to it than that? What if the connectivity buying decision ought to consider an even bigger picture? What if satellites and constellations really do matter when it comes to individual users? Viasat says they do, and now it’s setting out to change the connectivity game.
There was a frisson of excitement on Viasat’s newly rebranded EBACE booth, reflecting its freshly announced deal with Embraer for Ka-band connectivity on the Legacy jet and a slightly earlier agreement with Honeywell’s GoDirect (previously Satcom1).
Jerry Goodwin, Executive Vice President Network Services Portfolio explained: “We’ve been watching our colleagues in the commercial group delivering connectivity through our latest satellites for a few years, waiting to give our business jet customers the same standard of service. We’ve been working hard to pull together everything that we need to do it, including the correct terminals, because for the most part we can’t use the same, large terminals the commercial airline group uses.
“Now we have the technology in place and we feel this is a tipping point of lots of good things to come. Building transition pathways for our many existing customers to upgrade over time has also been an important part of the process. Plus, we’re super excited about the deal with Embraer, which was competitive – we had to compete for it against other vendors.
“We’ve been working with them a little over six months and the partnership is going really well. We’re concentrating on STCs and radomes, and concluding test work on the terminals, which are almost ready to go. Now we’re talking with them to define the end-user experience, which is so important. Embraer is telling Legacy customers the package will be available as line fit from second quarter 2019, which is really comfortable for us.”
The engineering, trials and certification effort for the line fit offering will also inform the STC for adding Viasat’s system to earlier Legacys. Combined, the line fit and retrofit options bring high-speed connectivity to the mid-size market in a way never before attempted. “Four or five years ago, almost none of the mid-cabin business jet manufacturers were interested in this type of connectivity system, because they’d need a radome design for the tail and other work, and the market wasn’t ready for that,” Goodwin says. “Manufacturers questioned whether principals would want connectivity on shorter flights and we were almost competing with non-use. But a coast-to-coast US trip isn’t short and it’s really different now, with everyone looking to figure out their connectivity story.”
The implication is that thanks to improved comfort and performance, the latest mid-size jets, exemplified by the Legacy, are tackling longer trips, but for operators flying coast-to-coast, how does Viasat’s Ka-band offering make sense compared to a well-established competitor’s air-to-ground service, for example?
“Our advantage is in the network; it’s about capacity. That’s what defines how many aircraft you can add simultaneously. Because of our network size, we offer a superior quality of service since our network capacity is orders of magnitude greater. That means that when demand on the network is high, we have the bandwidth to cope, while other providers do not.
“Our competitors suffer those same issues if we compare satellite networks, although the imbalance is less stark – we offer in the region of 100 times greater capacity, while if you compare our satellite service with the air-to-ground example, it’s more like 1,000 times greater. And what’s more, aviation takes only a small percentage of Viasat’s total network capacity.”
Capacity and Experience
Listening to Goodwin enthuse over Viasat’s Ka-band system, it’s easy to forget the company’s long experience in Ku-band service offerings. James Person, Viasat’s Director of Global Business Development for Business and VVIP Aviation, says: “We’ve been active in business aviation with our global Ku-band network for more than a decade and at one time it was the premier network. But we always anticipated that we’d need to go on and establish a highly differentiated network. That’s what we’ve done now and although it happens to be in the same Ka-band frequency band as a competitor’s satellites, really that’s the only thing they have in common, because we have so much more capacity.
“And we focus on capacity where business jets fly. We started in North America, then extended to Europe through a joint venture, and most recently we launched ViaSat-2, which added coverage in the Caribbean and North Atlantic. All in, Viasat covers about 85% of business jet flying hours. Our capacity over that combined area is more than 500Gbps, while our nearest competitor covers one third of the world with a 7Gbps satellite. That’s what enables our differentiated experience.”
Goodwin and Person are extremely proud of the ‘differentiated experience’ they say Viasat offers, but it sounds suspiciously like marketing speak to describe something that’s just a little different from the competition. What exactly does it mean to the customer? “All our plans are 16Mbps,” Person explains. “We don’t reduce the speed if you buy only a small amount of data. We can do that because we have so much capacity and we put it where principals fly. That’s the standard our new Embraer customers can expect too.”
The GoDirect deal marks another significant Viasat advantage. “GoDirect has a number of customers with Viasat Ku-band equipment on board. The new agreement gives them an opportunity, as it does Satcom Direct, which has already extended its agreement, to not only upgrade customers to Ka-band, but dual-band. It’s something no one else can offer.
“It’s about the network, but also about our shipset. It’s very compact, the antennas are all the same size and we only need three LRUs [line replaceable units]. It means we can put two antennas on a large-cabin Gulfstream or Bombardier Global; we’ll see Gulfstreams flying with dual-band this year.”
Viasat is also looking out for customers operating jets equipped for its Ku-band, but with no space for a second antenna – in the bullet fairing of a Falcon, for example. The Ka-band antenna is a straight swap with the Ku-band equipment, while the mounting points and connections of the associated LRUs are identical, facilitating a simple, one-for-one exchange. “Several of our Ku-band customers saw the change to Ka-band coming,” Goodwin says. “They thought about it early and now they’ll benefit from the commonality between our Ku- and Ka-band equipment.”
With a dual-band fit, customers will enjoy 16Mbps via Viasat Ka-band over the majority of their routes, with the company’s Ku-band providing up to 6Mbps when the jet flies out of Ka-band range. Remarkably, Person says: “We’ve priced it through our suppliers so that customers pay the same monthly fee for dual-band as they’re currently paying for Ku-band; we can do that because we own the Ka-band satellites.”
Customers upgrading from Ku- to Ka-band have traditionally needed to modify their aircraft with aerodynamically and structurally identical radomes in a different material, since a Ka-band antenna sitting under a Ku-band radome delivers less than optimal performance. Yet Viasat is offering dual-band, via two antennas under the same radome; with a smile on his face, Person notes: “We have that technology available for large-cabin aircraft – we’ve been delivering ‘Ku-/Ka-band’ radomes to commercial airlines, as well as senior leader government aircraft for years now, and we’re applying that same proven technology to the business jet market. Dual-band complements our highly differentiated Ka-band for mid-cabins and other aircraft that can only accept one antenna, plus we have the satellites up, the STCs in process and the line-fit agreement with Embraer – it’s all coming together this year.
“And another big advantage is that we’re going to be offering TV over the Ka-band. Many aircraft have a TV reception antenna, for standard definition [SD] broadcast, but those broadcasts are set to be discontinued, rendering the antennas as little more than ballast. With our multi-cast system, we send live high-definition TV signals – news and sport – over our Ka-band network.”
Goodwin has good news on TV pricing as well. “It won’t count against the monthly data allocation, it’ll be through a flat-rated subscription, so customers can watch as much TV as they want.” Person expands: “Operators might have 40Gb or 100Gb of combined Ku-/Ka-band data, then add TV service as required by subscription, without needing an additional antenna.
“We’ve been waiting to do what we do for the commercial airlines for a while and now we’re very excited to have everything in place, ready to deliver our unique product to business and VIP aircraft operators. Right now, we’re offering a high-quality Ka-band service, plus dual-band for those with aircraft large enough to accommodate two antennas. And from 2020, we’ll launch three satellites in our global ViaSat-3 satellite constellation, which will deliver global Ka-band service. “Meanwhile, our specialist VVIP team has been really busy working with customers to supply the Ku-/Ka-band solution for ACJs, BBJs and other large platforms, especially in Europe, where they’re engaging completion centres across the region.”
Viasat sees internet use continuing to increase exponentially and Goodwin reckons it has the requirement well in hand. “We take pride in designing and constructing satellite constellations that are vastly different to any other satellite constellation out there. We started with ViaSat-1 – which offered more capacity than any other satellite in orbit at launch, we sought to double capacity and increase the coverage by seven times with the ViaSat-2 satellite and our ViaSat-3 class takes capacity and coverage to a whole other level – and we don’t plan to stop there. Our initial three ViaSat-3 class satellites will provide global coverage and enable us to put capacity where demand is – it provides an immediate, dynamic response that might move capacity from the East to West Coasts as required, for example, or perhaps cover all the business jets flying into a region for the World Cup or other global sporting event. It also means we won’t be constrained for capacity.
“When those satellites come into service, I expect our product to be so reliable and interesting compared to what the world has seen from satellites before, it’ll be fascinating to see how customers adapt to its quality. Our current Ka-band LRUs are capable of handling 16Mbps, but they’re forward compatible with our ViaSat-3 system – meaning they’ll be able to handle twice that, even on a large-cabin antenna. We don’t do business unless it changes the game and that’s what we’re doing.”