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Full speed ahead for Qatar's Wi-Fi

Posted 16 October 2017 · Add Comment

Passengers on many Qatar Airways' flights will soon be able to use high-speed in-flight Wi-Fi, thanks to Inmarsat's GX Aviation Ka-band satellite connectivity. Steve Nichols reports.

Qatar announced its intention to install Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) Aviation service across its flagship fleet back in April, but actually signed the contract in late May.
This makes Qatar the first Middle Eastern airline to select the GX Aviation in-flight connectivity solution.
Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways group chief executive, said: “Qatar Airways prides itself on assessing and understanding the latest market innovations, demonstrating over and over again our ability to ride and guide trends in passenger preferences.
“By partnering with Inmarsat, we are confident that Qatar Airways will meet the highest expectations in the industry for in-flight broadband services, and avail ourselves of the many other new opportunities powered by connectivity.”
Ben Griffin, Inmarsat’s regional director Middle East and Africa, said the deal was negotiated directly with the airline rather than via a distribution partner at the request of the customer.
“We are currently talking to other prospects within the Middle East, India and Africa across our distribution options,” Griffin said. “We expect to be able to have news of various other customer commitments throughout the rest of the year.”
Confirmed customers for the GX Aviation solution now include Lufthansa, Singapore, Norwegian, Air Astana, Air New Zealand, AirAsia and now Qatar Airways. Lufthansa was the first to go live.
Speaking at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Leo Mondale, Inmarsat Aviation president, said: “Lufthansa is very satisfied with the performance of its Inmarsat GX in-flight connectivity, as are its customers – the net promoter scores from passengers using it are very positive.
“It’s a huge pleasure to get some of our milestones behind us. You’ll now see us doing very well. We’re in a market that is like selling candy to a baby.
“The fact we have more than 1,000 aircraft in backlog at this point is an incredible milestone, given that GX Aviation only went live a few months ago.
“It is further proof that the in-flight broadband revolution has truly begun; passengers are demanding quality connectivity and airlines are endorsing Inmarsat’s superior offering.”
Mondale added that Inmarsat is starting to see the availability (or not) of in-flight connectivity affect passengers’ buying habits. “It is becoming a deciding factor when passengers choose an airline,” he said.
“Passengers prefer access to connectivity over in-flight entertainment – we’ve never seen a clearer roadmap for the future.”
Qatar has said that the service will be available to passengers on board more than 130 of its aircraft.
The Inmarsat GX technology, driven by Honeywell’s JetWave hardware, had already been equipped on a line-fit basis on selected Qatar Airways’ Airbus A350s.
Installations on the airline’s remaining Airbus A350s, together with its Boeing 777s, are being completed on a retrofit basis this summer.
So what can passengers expect? As Arabian Aerospace technology editor, I was given a sneak preview of GX’s capabilities aboard a press flight with Lufthansa back in April.
The test over Germany, aboard a Lufthansa Airbus A319 aircraft, saw the system delivering up to 14.2Mbps to the passenger.
During the test flight, a laptop computer was used to see how Lufthansa’s FlyNet would stand up to watching HD streaming video as well as general web browsing, e-mails and social media use.
An internet speed-measuring app was also used at various points in the flight.
The slowest recorded download speed (to the aircraft) was 1.4Mbps and the fastest seen was 14.2Mbps. The average speed to the aircraft was around 10Mbps. The average speed off the aircraft (uploading files) was around 5Mbps.
Latency (system delay) was around 600-800ms, which largely reflects the round-trip (at the speed of light) of the Ka-band microwave beam to the geostationary satellite and back to Earth, and which accounts for around 250-280ms depending on the relative location of the aircraft and the satellite in use.
Web page loading was snappy, as was the reception of e-mail. A 720P HD video was also streamed from YouTube and watched full screen. This played flawlessly for the five minutes it was watched.
As Qatar will be using the same fuselage-mounted antenna and Honeywell JetWave hardware as Lufthansa, there is no physical reason why its speeds will be very different. It does depend upon the overall data package that Qatar has bought, but assuming it is similar to Lufthansa’s, Qatar’s passengers can expect the same performance.
Qatar Airways declined to comment at this stage on how it will charge for its in-flight connectivity usage. Many airlines are now adopting a ‘per flight’ model rather than a time or data-based package. This avoids “bill shock” for the passenger and also stops them running out of their data allowance mid flight.
For example, Lufthansa has adopted three different packages for its GX implementation – FlyNet Message (EUR 3), FlyNet Surf (EUR 7), and FlyNet Stream (EUR 12).
While FlyNet Message only allows the use of messaging services such as e-mail, WhatsApp or iMessage, FlyNet Surf also enables passengers to surf the internet. With the FlyNet Stream service package, video and audio streaming is also possible.
Lufthansa has blocked the use of VOIP and video conferencing apps, such as FaceTime. This means that you can’t make or receive VOIP-based audio phone calls with the ground either. This was a policy decision by Lufthansa and not a limitation of the GX in-flight connectivity system.
Qatar could offer free in-flight Wi-Fi to all passengers as part of the overall ticket, or restrict free access to business-class passengers, which is more likely.
Offering free access to all inevitably results in a high demand for the service, which can then result in degraded performance. So, paradoxically, it can make sense to charge for the in-flight connectivity to maintain a good level of service.
So how does the system work?
Inmarsat GX uses three (and soon to be four) geostationary satellites. The first three I-5 Ka-band satellites, built by Boeing, are in orbit and cover the globe. A fourth satellite was launched in May and, at the time of writing, was being manoeuvred to cover Europe, the Middle East and Indian sub-continent.
Inmarsat said its final location would be advised in due course.
A statement said: “The fourth satellite adds further capacity to the GX network, as well as in-orbit redundancy that further upgrades the reliability and resilience of Inmarsat’s service offerings.”
Signals are sent to and from a number of dedicated satellite access stations (SASs) around the globe. These are located at Fucino in Italy, Nemea in Greece, Paumalu in Hawaii, Winnipeg in Canada, Lino Lakes in Minnesota, USA, and Auckland in New Zealand. Once on the ground the internet protocol (IP) packets join the terrestrial networks.
The access stations are in areas that generally benefit from good weather and little rain – the Ka-band microwave signals are particularly susceptible to rain fade. If there is a weather problem at one SAS, signals can be temporarily re-routed to another.
This will all be transparent to Qatar Airways’ passengers. The system can even move from one spot beam to another (known as a beam-to-beam hand-off) using a “make before break” technique, which minimises outages.
Even a change from one satellite to another may be accomplished in less than a minute. And, as Inmarsat has satellites spanning the globe (at least up to around approximately 80 degrees north and south latitude) the service should be consistent.
Inmarsat has plans to build and launch further Ka-band satellites and recently signed a contract with Thales Alenia Space to build a new satellite, which is targeted for launch in 2019.
It said this would provide capacity across the Middle East, Europe and the Indian subcontinent, which suggests that the fourth I-5 satellite may eventually be moved to another orbital slot.
Inmarsat says the new satellite will also support the rapid adoption by other airlines of GX Aviation, both in Europe and through the major Europe/Asia aviation traffic corridor.

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