Inmarsat has been clear about its intentions to launch a terrestrial (ATG) connectivity network in Europe for more than a year now. That network is to be supported by a S-band satellite connection, providing seamless transitions in areas where the ATG network fails or crossing bodies of water (though the English Channel and most of Scandinavia could easily be covered with terrestrial towers on the shorelines). And Lufthansa has not been shy about indicating it plans to fit its regional fleet with a connectivity solution, favoring the Inmarsat offering above other options. Ultimately, that’s the deal which was announced this week: Lufthansa is installing the Inmarsat ATG/S-Band hybrid offering. But there are bits which remain uncertain, enough that there are opportunities for the situation to change in the coming months.
The initial aircraft are being fitted in mid-2016 but not with S-Band and not with ATG service. They will receive the Inmarsat GX satellite kit. This is a global Ka-band satellite solution which would not really need to be replaced once installed; the system should work just fine for those aircraft once installed. But, because the planes will remain more or less over Europe, there is potential value in shifting them to the cheaper S-band/ATG network (Inmarsat has claimed a 50x per-bit savings for the new network). Plus there are the limitations of capacity in the GX system; each of the three satellites has spectacular coverage but limited capacity. Pushing the more local planes to local service saves bandwidth for the aircraft flying further afield. Then again, there is a Ka-band satellite sitting over Europe with tons of cheap capacity available, but Lufthansa is not choosing that one, either.
And then there is the question of when the S-band/ATG network will be available for use. The ground stations are being built by Deutsche Telekom and 300ish are expected to come online as part of the deal. Securing a partner for the ground portion of the build out saves Inmarsat time and money. Getting 300 towers deployed in 18 months is not trivial but, especially given the existing infrastructure, it should be possible. The space portion will be handled by EuropaSat, half of the payload on a satellite still under construction (Hellas-Sat 3 is the other half). That payload is expected to be launched using one of Inmarsat’s options with SpaceX. The satellite is too heavy for the Falcon 9 rocket; it requires the Falcon 9 Heavy version for its launch. And currently SpaceX is on hiatus from future launches due to the failure of its CRS-7 mission on 28 June 2015. With future launches, including the inaugural Falcon Heavy, still on an uncertain timeline the “good” news is that Inmarsat won’t have the satellite ready to launch for 18 months or so, but it is unclear that SpaceX will be ready for it when that time comes.
Finally, there are questions about the process of switching out the GX connectivity for the S-band network. Honeywell Aerospace is nearing completion of the certification process for its JetWave terminal, the exclusive hardware to provide GX Aviation connectivity and Inmarsat says that its GX customers will be able to “roam on to the [S-band] network when in Europe” which may explain why Lufthansa chose that platform for the integration. That matters less in this case because the fleet being fitted has almost zero flights outside the regional Ka coverage zone. It is also not clear what the radome/antenna situation will be to make that roaming happen. It is spectacularly uncommon that a single antenna supports multiple frequency bands so presumably there will need to be either another radome or additional hardware under the JetWave cover; either way that’s more “kit” and certifications involved in making the system work.
Getting GX on the Lufthansa birds by mid-2016 should not be much of a challenge. And that means connectivity for the short-haul fleet really is coming soon. Getting beyond that to the hybrid S-band/ATG deployment will likely happen, too. But the timing of that remains hazy at best.
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