Ku-band antenna dogfight not over yet, says Mackay of EMS
Some people think the race to supply all-important antennas to the emerging Ku-band satellite passenger connectivity suppliers is all but over. “Not so,” says Neil Mackay, chief operating officer at EMS Technologies. “It’s early days for these services,” he says. “Ku-band is very complex and I think we’ll see equipment choices evolving as time goes by.”
The Atlanta-based company is currently in the happy position of having been selected by Panasonic to provide antennas for its eXconnect service, which is due to launch later this year. Other Ku-band suppliers are AeroSat, supplying Row 44; ViaSat, provider to ARINC SKYLink/Rockwell Collins eXchange; and the QEST/Tecom team, still looking for a first application.
But the complexity of the Ku-band services, which depend on patchworks of leased satellite capacity, means that these relationships may not be cut and dried in the long term, according to Mackay. “You have to buy footprints and transponder time from several different providers and then cobble them together,” he says. “Then each transponder has a different gain and performance level – it’s a complex thing.”
The result is compromise in the airborne equipment, particularly the antenna. “The service providers are trying to find the best balance to support the capabilities they want to deliver in the regions they want to serve,” he says. “For example, an antenna that works well at the equator, which would suit some airlines, might not do as well further north. So the providers are continuing to looking at the available antennas to see if they fit with their service plans.”
As a result, the providers could eventually decide to do business with those airlines that fit their product rather than striving to create a range of products and equipment packages and going after the whole available market, Mackay believes.
Meantime, EMS Technologies continues to work with Starling of Israel to develop the antenna that will support Panasonic eXconnect. “Our relationship with Starling is going very well,” says Mackay. “We’ve done a lot of testing on one or more antennas and we’re making good progress.”
The deal with Starling is one of several that have resulted from Mackay’s strategic drive to turn EMS into a broad-spectrum connectivity player. In addition to the long established EMS Satcom of Ottawa, a leading L-band satellite equipment supplier, the company now includes among its subsidiaries EMS Formation, which provides airborne equipment for the Aircell Gogo passenger broadband service in the USA, and Iridium satellite solutions provider Sky Connect.
“When you get down to it, the customers don’t really care how the data gets on and off the aircraft – it’s the quality of the service that counts,” comments Mackay. “At EMS we don’t think of ourselves as an L-band shop or a Ku-band shop or whatever – it’s about supplying connectivity to anything that moves in the air, by the most appropriate means wherever the aircraft happens to be operating.”
As far as Mackay is concerned, that could be Inmarsat or Iridium L-band satellite, Ku-band satellite or terrestrial air-to-ground (ATG) systems like Aircell Gogo. “Right now we count more than 36 airlines doing tests,” he observes. “The argument about whether airlines and passengers want connectivity is over – now it’s matter of finding the right solution for each airline’s route structure and passenger demographic.”
Mackay sees Inmarsat L-band as continuing to enjoy a built-in advantage in the form of its ICAO clearance to support safety services – air traffic control. “Inmarsat has a strong position because that’s what the airlines have decided on, and a lot of the ARINC standards are built around it,” he says. “At the same time, Ku-band can supply a lot of bandwidth to cabin as well as supporting airline operational communications. The carriers are waking to the fact that those systems might soon be cost-effective as long as enough operators get on board.”
Aircell’s Gogo ATG service is very cost-effective over the USA, Mackay says, but currently has no reach elsewhere. “Consequently there could be a need for a second system for, say, the Boeing 767s that operate within the USA but also across the Atlantic.”
Commenting on reports that a group of companies is studying a possible “EuroGogo,” Mackay comments: “It makes a lot of sense from a cost point of view - the cost of putting Gogo on a plane is much lower than that of any other connectivity service with the exception of the narrowband Iridium. But it would have to be a pan-European service integrating all the national jurisdictions. I think the work that OnAir has done to foster mutual recognition of national licenses for onboard GSM services has created a very helpful precedent.”
This year has seen a surge in the take-up of onboard cellphone alongside American Airlines’ historic decision to implement Gogo in 300 domestic aircraft following an intensive in-service trial. After 20 years of false starts, is the connectivity market finally beginning to develop long-term staying power?
“I believe so, but that doesn’t mean that one provider or another will not run into trouble,” Mackay cautions. “If they expand too quickly or too slowly they could run into problems balancing their cash. It’s now all about that, and whether investors will stick with them through the recession. But I think somebody is going to succeed - let’s hope our customers are among them.”