Intelsat is preparing to take delivery of its first next-generation software-defined satellites in 2024. With lower costs, higher utilization and the potential for in-orbit configuration, this technology is set to revolutionize inflight connectivity. But that’s not all Intelsat is eyeing to improve our connected life. Also in the future roadmap are NGSOs, HAPS, 5G connectivity and more – here’s what it means for aviation.
Intelsat has had a busy couple of years, from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to acquiring Gogo’s commercial aviation arm. At the start of 2021, the firm announced a deal with Airbus to acquire two OneSat software-defined satellites for its fleet. Promising in-orbit reconfiguration, higher utilization and lower costs, software-defined satellites are widely considered to be the next big change in satellite communications.
Simple Flying caught up with John Wade, President of Intelsat’s Commercial Aviation division, on the sidelines of the Dubai Air Show to find out more about the benefits of this technology, and what it means for commercial aviation. He told us,
“We’re on the cusp of a very exciting period of satellite evolution, which is going to really take passenger IFC connectivity to the next generation of where we’ve been in the past. Until now, almost every network you put up is relatively static – capacity, coverage cannot change. In the software defined world, you can, in real time, put capacity where it’s needed. So the networks become very dynamic.”
Wade explained that, with the software-defined satellite technology, providers can go as far as to direct specific capacity at specific aircraft. This would be revolutionary, being able to give, for example, a widebody full of long-distance passengers more capacity than a regional jet flying nearby. Being able to modify and populate these satellites with new apps and new instructions makes them far more future-proofed too.
But it’s not just the technology that makes software-defined satellites attractive for aviation. These new vessels are going to be much cheaper to produce, and with a higher utilization on the cards, they’ll be cheaper to operate too. Airline passengers can look forward to onboard WiFi coming at a lower cost, potentially even free, and with far greater speeds and reliability than is currently possible today.
Intelsat is investing in two software-defined satellites to begin with, due to arrive in 2024. Deployment will accelerate as time goes on, eventually seeing the entire Intelsat fleet renewed with these next-generation solutions.
That’s just one aspect of Intelsat’s ‘network of networks’. But the company has much greater plans for its commercial aviation offerings. Wade touched on non-geostationary orbit plans, MEO or LEO, and multi-band offerings. That’s something we can expect to be firmed up in the months to come.
Intelsat is also looking at HAPS – High Altitude Platform Stations – as solutions to congested airspace. These solar-powered aircraft fly much higher than commercial traffic, at around 60 – 70,000 feet, and can carry a datalink to target capacity at the most congested areas. Airbus recently undertook successful flight testing of its Zephyr HAPS in partnership with NTT DOCOMO.
Most excitingly, this network of networks seeks to embrace 5G in flight, providing data roaming akin to our experience on the ground. Wade explained,
“When you get on an airplane, your phone will discover an Intelsat access point, and will treat it just like a cellular access point. That means users can have the service bundled with their bill, if they’re already paying for International, or they’ll be able to opt to pay $2 or $3 to access for the streaming quality services for the duration of the fight.”
Being in a position to stream whatever we want on a plane for less than the cost of a coffee sounds great. Being able to do that without signing in to portals, downloading apps, or otherwise engaging in complex activities sounds like a dream come true. But Intelsat’s vision of a ‘network of networks’ is driving towards that vision in just a handful of years.