Partnership Will Fill Network Gaps, Cut Latency, Say Companies

Credit: Hongqi Zhang/Alamy Stock Photo

The decision by satellite communications companies OneWeb and Intelsat to sign a global distribution partnership agreement to offer airlines seamless inflight connectivity (IFC) will do so by effectively linking two constellations of satellites. 

The partnership enables Intelsat to distribute OneWeb’s Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite services to airlines worldwide, coupled with Intelsat’s own IFC experience and existing Geo-synchronous (GEO) satellite service. 

The result is what the companies describe as a multi-orbit solution for the aviation community – particularly the commercial aviation sector – leveraging the benefits of both networks. 

Jeff Sare
“Fundamentally, the advantage is having both LEO and GEO capability,” Intelsat’s president, commercial aviation, Jeff Sare said.

“Fundamentally, the advantage is having both LEO and GEO capability,” Intelsat’s president, commercial aviation, Jeff Sare said.  “Every technology has its limits; this helps to bridge the gap across those limits.”

With geosynchronous satellites, there is a slight degree of latency, he said. “Adding a LEO constellation helps bring the overall latency of the combined network down.

“Adding LEO will fill in those gaps that are difficult or impossible to cover with geosynchronous orbits.”
By harnessing the power of multi-orbit capabilities, Intelsat will ensure airlines and their passengers are able to enjoy the best IFC, without compromise, the company says. Airlines and their passengers will no longer have to accept significant gaps in IFC coverage or capacity – even at busy hubs, across oceans, and over polar routes. Intelsat will manage connectivity, allowing passengers to remain connected wherever they are.

One factor that will aid this is electronically steered antennas, which can switch back and forth between different satellite constellations in a way that traditional gimballed antennas cannot. 
Airline staff and passengers essentially do not care which set of satellites are pointing at them, just so long as the signal is good, said Sare. 

The two companies expect the multi-orbit solution to be in service by 2024.
“This level of connectivity will enable airlines to maximize brand affiliation with passengers through all their onboard services – delivering a truly connected end-to-end passenger journey,” said Sare. “The hybrid service offering further allows the global airline community to plan their suite of next-generation onboard services with confidence – not only ensuring a future-proofed passenger inflight connectivity experience, but also the implementation of a connected airline digitalization strategy.”
“This is a watershed moment for the inflight connectivity market, and we’re excited to work together with Intelsat to bring our multi-orbit solution to commercial aviation,” added OneWeb vice president, mobility services, Ben Griffin. 

“We’re committed to delivering the most differentiated and innovative solution for airlines. We are proving that, through the power of partnership, a superior suite of multi-orbit capabilities can be offered to better serve the growing connectivity needs of the commercial aviation industry, delivering the highest value coupled with the lowest risk.”
Latency “in today’s use cases isn’t terribly important, but in tomorrow’s use cases may be,” Sare added.

Latency is not at present a major problem in streaming a movie, for example, as once it is downloaded it is cached within the system. However, in the next decade or two, he said, latency would become more critical, as autonomous aircraft, for example, would need instant two-way connectivity to allow the safe operation of such vehicles. 

Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.