Roaming coming to in-flight satellite providers

One of the most significant marks against the Ka-band satellite providers today is the limited coverage available. There simply are not enough satellites flying to provide global coverage; it is very much a regional offering. Two major operators, ViaSat and Eutelsat, took steps to ease that problem this week, announcing a agreement to “enable service access and roaming on each other’s high-capacity satellite networks (KA-SAT for Eutelsat and ViaSat-1 for ViaSat).” Essentially this means that subscribers – airlines, maritime, emergency services or others – now have connectivity options in both North America and Europe rather than just on one side of the Atlantic. It is worth noting that it is unclear whether this roaming agreement is a wholesale deal under which all customers of ViaSat and Eutelsat have access to the partners’ systems or if it is only for direct retail customers of the two providers.

The current coverage maps for North America and Europe which are included in the roaming agreement announced by ViaSat and Eutelsat. The current coverage maps for North America and Europe which are included in the roaming agreement announced by ViaSat and Eutelsat.

Better, easier access to more coverage is great news, of course, except that for today it doesn’t really actually mean much to the airlines. It is significant for ViaSat and El Al; the former has contracted with the latter to provide connectivity services on flights between Israel and Europe. But for everyone else it doesn’t matter as there are no planes flying across both regions with the Ka-band hardware. That’s mostly because there is still no Ka-band coverage across the North Atlantic Ocean which means 5ish hours of no service for a transatlantic flight even under the best of circumstances. It would be hard to sell passengers on the benefits of the connectivity when they cannot use it for a sizable chunk of the flight.

The agreement does have “provisions for future satellites and follow-on technologies” which means that ViaSat-2, scheduled to launch in 2016, will be included in the arrangement. And the coverage map for the new bird ranges from Colombia and Panama to the western edge of Europe. It completes the North Atlantic crossing. At that point the US-Europe aviation market will have full coverage for most routes. And, if the Eutelsat 3B satellite is included in the agreement then the coverage will extend down to Brazil as well. That coverage is currently contracted to Via Sat Brazil so it stands to reason that it could be included in this new agreement, but it was not specifically mentioned in the release.

ViaSat-2 will add North Atlantic Ka-band coverage in 2016
ViaSat-2 will add North Atlantic Ka-band coverage in 2016

Of course, this reasonably comprehensive Ka-band should be the second network to provide Ka-band services in the market. Intelsat’s Global Express (GX) satellites are expected to be operational in 2015 and offering full global coverage, not just regional service. There are questions about the launch timing for the second and third satellites (subscription req’d.) and also concerns in some circles about the total bandwidth available in the GX ecosystem and the ability to provide high throughput in the more densely travelled routes. The ViaSat/Eutelsat partnership should be able to provide significantly higher speeds in the individual spot beams covering the North Atlantic. And given the density of air traffic in the area being able to provide that additional bandwidth means that each plane using the service has a better chance of receiving the data rates they will need to support their users and an ever-growing demand for connectivity capacity.

And then there is the chance that the value of Ka-band connectivity is reduced by a constellation of Ku-band Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. The LEO constellation could provide lower latency with high speeds and be constructed of lower-cost satellites. And Google might be in on the market to make that LEO constellation happen, throwing a few billion dollars at the issue to see if they can get a lot more eyeballs online and looking at the ads they serve up. Such a system could drastically alter the connectivity landscape, though it is unlikely to see operation until the 2020 timeframe.

Or, as one analyst noted, “[T]his is massive news…just not really right now.” It seems that’s always the case in the world of satellite connectivity. Something huge is always on the horizon, while many operators are having trouble keeping up with the demand growth.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.