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News from the CASBAA Satellite Industry Forum and CommunicAsia 2014 | With Eutelsat Deal, Panasonic Closes Last Gap in Global Air-route Coverage

“The missing piece of our coverage has been the North Pacific Rim and the Asia-Pacific,” David Bruner, vice president of global communications services at Panasonic, said. Credit: Panasonic photo

SINGAPORE — Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat on June 19 said it would order a large C- and Ku-band satellite stationed over the Pacific Ocean that will provide connectivity for Panasonic Avionics’ in-flight communications program, an arrangement that, coupled with previous deals, gives Panasonic coverage of 99.6 percent of the commercial air corridors of the world’s 50 largest airlines.

David Bruner, vice president of global communications services at Lake Forest, California-based Panasonic, said the company has purchased 1.5 gigahertz of capacity on the Eutelsat 172B satellite, whose launch is tentatively scheduled for 2017 into Eutelsat’s 172 degrees east orbital position.

Paris-based Eutelsat said the satellite will carry a C-band payload to replace the capacity on the current 172A satellite now at the slot. In addition to that, 172B will carry a standard Ku-band payload for Asia and Pacific Ocean region coverage and a high-throughput Ku-band payload featuring transmission rates of 1.8 gigabits per second.

Eutelsat said it expects to select a manufacturer for the satellite this summer.

Panasonic, which is a launch customer for Intelsat’s Epic Ku-band high-throughput satellite service, has now stitched together a global network to provide Wi-Fi-level Internet access.

The avionics company has made perhaps the largest single commitment of any of the several in-flight communications providers now looking to satellites and to air-to-ground links to meet rising demand for on-line access.

Panasonic has outfitted 445 commercial passenger jets for 30 airlines, many of them in Asia, and has another 1,500 aircraft in its backlog of customers from some 50 airlines, Bruner said.

Panasonic also is providing live television feeds of the World Cup soccer tournament to several airlines — some eight aircraft in total — including Singapore Airlines and Garuda of Indonesia.

Eutelsat had been planning to replace its 172A satellite with a larger spacecraft around 2017 anyway, and to move 172A to another location. But the Panasonic order allowed the company to jump into the side of the high-throughput satellite sector that does not use Ka-band capacity.

The Epic satellites under construction for Washington- and Luxembourg-based Intelsat will fill orbital positions with enough Ku-band bandwidth to permit frequency reuse for aeronautical and maritime communications. 

Panasonic has been working to find finding enough capacity in the relatively small number of air corridors carrying most of the world’s traffic. According to Panasonic data, 80 percent of all commercial air traffic flies over just 15 percent of Earth’s surface.

The result has been, for Panasonic, a patchwork of 17 satellites — 23 separate beams — with a combined 1.28 gigahertz of capacity. The Eutelsat 172B arrangement will more than double the Panasonic service offer over one of the most important air corridors connecting Asia and North America.

“The missing piece of our coverage has been the North Pacific Rim and the Asia-Pacific,” Bruner said here June 19 during the CommunicAsia 2014 telecommunications show. “Nine different [satellite operators] made offers to us with attractive technical and commercial proposals. But you just can’t beat the orbital position of 172 degrees east joining Asia and the Americas.”

Bruner, who said his management occasionally wonders whether he is trying to support, single-handedly, the global satellite telecommunications industry, said the company eventually expects that it will need access to fewer than 17 satellites as it tailors coverage with satellite operators before they complete their designs.

In a presentation here, Bruner acknowledged that other companies have tried to do this before, notably Connexion by Boeing and Tenzing Communications of Seattle, both of which have gone out of business. 

Industry officials have said Tenzing invested as much as $100 million in its failed effort. Chicago-based Boeing spent more than $1 billion — some estimates have topped $1.5 billion.

The Boeing venture, which had the backing of a few early adopters including Lufthansa German Airlines, ran into the dot-com crash in 2000 and the sharp contraction of the commercial air sector following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I really want to applaud Boeing,” Bruner said. “They had a great team and we have since picked up several of their people. You hear about Boeing spending $1 billion on Connexion. Actually it was much more than that. Were we smarter than them? Maybe a little, but we were also luckier in terms of timing.”

Panasonic’s choice of Ku-band instead of Ka-band for its in-flight connectivity service has been a subject of debate as multiple high-throughput satellite projects have elected Ka-band because it is more widely available at the orbital slots they are using.

Bruner said 10 Ku-band satellites are typically launched each year, and that gave Panasonic confidence that an in-orbit supply of capacity would be there when the company began its program nearly 10 years ago.

Given the relatively small size of Panasonic’s Ku-band communications antenna on the aircraft’s skin, and the fast temperature and humidity changes it must survive, he said the company likely would choose Ku-band again today despite the multiple Ka-band spacecraft now in orbit or on order.

“People say we are flying above the weather, but the fact is we also operate on the ground,” Bruner said. “People want access to the Internet if the aircraft is stuck on the ground for a length of time.”

Ka-band transmissions are more vulnerable than Ku-band links to degradation by weather events such as heavy rain.  

Bruner said it takes about four days for an aircraft to be retrofitted with the Panasonic gear. Most of the retrofits are done during scheduled maintenance checks.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes

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