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Ka sets the pace for connectivity revolution

Posted 21 April 2020 · Add Comment

Inmarsat is planning the expansion of its GX Aviation Ka-band in-flight connectivity service with a raft of new satellites. Steve Nichols reports.

Inmarsat has signed a contract with Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus) to develop a new generation of satellites for its Global Xpress (GX) network.
The satellites, named GX7, 8 and 9, will be optimised for real-time mobility and feature thousands of dynamically-formed beams that direct capacity with laser-like precision over high-demand areas.
With focused, ultra-high-power capacity, layered over high-demand flight routes and airport hubs during peak hours, Inmarsat says the satellites will revolutionise aviation connectivity.
Breaking from industry tradition to enable a faster response to growing customer demand, it says the next-generation GX satellites will be delivered significantly faster than traditional procurement lifecycles.
It adds that the network can rapidly grow capacity for customers through in-orbit repositioning or even by launching a new satellite.
“GX is much more than just a satellite constellation, it’s a complete end-to-end solution and we have been equally ambitious in developing our ground stations, hardware, software and cybersecurity framework,” said Neale Faulkner, Inmarsat’s SVP Middle East, India and Africa.
“Our partners layer on top even more value-added capabilities and industry experience that are unmatched. This is unique to Inmarsat and positions us as a leader and innovator in this industry, allowing us to put our business aviation customer needs at the heart of our future investment decisions.”
The new satellites are scheduled to launch from 2023 and build upon the existing GX high-speed global network, which consists of four satellites already in operation and three more being launched over the next three years, starting with the GX5 satellite later this year.
The new satellites will allow for greater capacity over important flight routes.
Geostationary satellite systems, like Inmarsat GX, run out of steam at about 85 degrees north and south of the equator. One advantage that low-Earth orbiting satellite systems, like Iridium, have over GX is their ability to work in the polar regions. However, Iridium cannot deliver the high bandwidth and speeds that airlines demand and passengers enjoy.
However, an announcement in July, hopes to bring high-speed connectivity to high latitudes via Inmarsat GX. The company announced a contract to introduce two new highly elliptical payloads for its Global Xpress (GX) network in partnership with Space Norway and its subsidiary, Space Norway HEOSAT.
Scheduled to launch in 2022, GX10A and 10B will be the first satellites in the GX network to be placed into highly elliptical orbit (HEO).
HEO, or so-called Molniya orbits, are a unique solution to the problem. As the name suggests, they are highly elliptical with the satellite’s high apogee, or furthest point from the Earth, meaning it appears to stay in roughly the same point in the sky for long periods. It then descends quickly to its perigee point (closest point to Earth) before the process repeats.
This means that, while at apogee, it presents pretty much the same target as a geostationary satellite does at the equator, but over the Arctic region.
It then becomes a software issue to keep the terminal pointing at the satellite.
This agreement marks a new direction for Inmarsat, which has always owned the satellites it has in orbit.
Emirates was quick to share its excitement about how the HEO satellite development plans will enhance the in-flight broadband service it offers to passengers.
“We are very pleased with this development, which will ensure Emirates continues to lead the industry in providing our customers a seamless in-flight connectivity experience across geographies, on all of our flight routes,” said Adel Al Redha, Emirates’ executive vice president and chief operations.
“Over the years, we have worked closely with Inmarsat and our supply partners to continually raise the bar on in-flight connectivity, and we look forward to further enhancing that experience, taking advantage of new technologies and infrastructure,” he added.
“Emirates’ passengers bound for the US will soon be able to enjoy Wi-Fi, mobile service connectivity and Live TV broadcast, even when flying 40,000 feet in higher elevations and across the Arctic.”
The new satellites will also provide Live TV broadcast on Emirates flights, allowing customers to watch live news or sports over the polar region. The airline’s Live TV is currently available on 175 aircraft, including all its Boeing 777s and select Airbus 380s.
Wi-Fi connectivity is now available on all Emirates’ aircraft. Customers in all cabin classes receive 20MB of free Wi-Fi data or unlimited use of messaging apps for two hours.
Emirates Skywards members enjoy special benefits, depending on their membership tier and class of travel, including free Wi-Fi when travelling in first class or business class. It says more than one million Wi-Fi connections are made on board the airline’s flights in an average month.
Inmarsat Aviation president, Philip Balaam, said: “Inmarsat has an extremely successful track record of working with Emirates to ensure their in-flight connectivity requirements are met on a global basis, both in the cockpit and the cabin.
“We are delighted to continue that tradition with the rapid development of our Global Xpress (GX) satellite network.
“Our development of the GX network is a great fit for Emirates and, once again ,they have played an important role in our decision for these latest expansions.”
But Emirates is not the only MENA-based airline to take advantage of GX.
It is currently being rolled out on Qatar Airways’ Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 aircraft. In total, GX Aviation will be fitted on 130 of the state-owned flag-carrier’s aircraft.
The roll-out is the culmination of a host of behind-the-scenes activities; from the initial announcement of the award-winning airline’s intention to adopt GX last June, through obtaining the supplemental type certificate for GX Aviation retrofit installations on the Boeing 777 aircraft.
Qatar Airways Group chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, said its passengers will now be able to access the same broadband service in the air as on the ground.
“Qatar Airways passengers can now enjoy high-speed broadband connectivity, providing rich content without restriction, whether using the internet for work or relaxation during their journey. Business travellers, in particular, will be able to maximise their ‘office in the sky’ with seamless continuity,” Al Baker said.
Babar Rahman, Qatar Airways senior manager, in-flight entertainment/connectivity, corporate sponsorships, CSR and special projects, said the airline had received an “immense outpouring of positive feedback regarding the speed of connectivity, the likes of which passengers are generally used to only on the ground”.
In April this year, Thales announced that Gulf Air, the national carrier of the Kingdom of Bahrain, had chosen Inmarsat GX for its B787-9 and A321 NEO-E (LR) aircraft.
In 2016, Gulf Air selected Thales’s AVANT in-flight entertainment system for its fleet renewal programme. Thales said its latest IFE innovations, combined with global Ka-band connectivity, provide unique services that transform passenger experiences wherever they fly.
Passengers can use the connectivity portal and on-board Wi-Fi network, powered by GX Aviation, to browse the internet, check social media, shop online and much more during their flights.
Inmarsat said its commitment to innovation will continue, based on a proven network strategy. It added that the future would bring “agile, efficient, precision-engineered solutions that anticipate and fulfil customer needs”.
The plan (with Inmarsat GX7, 8, 9 and beyond) is to have the capability to generate thousands of simultaneous, independent beams of differing sizes, bandwidth and power, which can be reconfigured and repositioned with pinpoint precision in real time.
The HEO satellites will allow Inmarsat to provide satellite coverage over the poles and will go some way to safeguarding its future. Companies like OneWeb are planning fast Ku-band satellite systems in low-Earth orbit that could ultimately challenge the dominance of geostationary satellite systems, which Inmarsat has enjoyed for years.

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