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By | March 10, 2001 | Via Satellite

A New Challenge For Satellites

Of course, dear comrades, you remember HAL from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, of course, you realize we’re now in 2001. So HAL is alerting us worthies in the satellite communications industry to explore our new cyberspace frontier.

Raise your seatback, buckle your belt and store your laptop as we enter the inner sanctum

of commercial air travel. We will enter a domain called “in-flight,” a term that may be hyphenated or not as we wish.

This is not the in-flight we once knew. Remember 40 years ago when primo in-flight entertainment featured an audio headset and a little bag of coveted Royal Hawaiian Macadamia Nuts, all at no extra cost? It was all so subliminal, yet so gracious.

The niceties of in-flight have changed as air travel has boomed. Gone are the macadamia nuts, too expensive to be an airline gift, but there’s a telephone near your seat, which will cost x, and an overhead one-channel movie screen, which will cost y unless you read lips and don’t need the soundtrack.

Two of the new niceties already being installed in large aircraft are (1) electrical power at the seat, and (2) personal monitors in every seatback. In this year that begins the real new millennium, more new and awesome in-flight options are being studied closely by the world’s airline operators.

What’s cool is that satellites are right in the middle of the future.

Welcome Aboard You’ve Got (Air) Mail

The air travel industry is considering major improvements in communications and entertainment services for passengers, especially the precious demographic group of business- oriented frequent flyers. Proposals from suppliers can be summarized in three categories: live television, cached Internet and real-time Internet.

Ultimate selections by the airlines will vary based on short hauls vs. long hauls; domestic routes vs. international; aircraft sizes; the wishes of passengers, especially the frequent flyers with business to do; and needless to say, the economic factors of alternative business models. Will passengers pay for live TV or the Internet, or both?

The wishes of business-oriented travelers have influenced the ongoing installations of electrical power at each seat and the prospects of multi-channel television and/or Internet access have triggered installations of seat-back monitors to replace centralized overhead systems.

Consumer airlines around the world generate more than five billion passenger miles annually. There are more than 21 million business travelers in the United States alone and more than 40 million worldwide. And some 80 percent of business travelers bring along a laptop, whether or not they use it, according to air travel industry sources.

Not all travelers, of course, are on business. General research conducted for one major airline found that a surprising number of travelers are not interested in e-mail and would prefer to sleep, read a book, listen to music or watch a movie. For them, air travel is an escape.

The Airlines Are Studying Plans

Costs to the airlines for in-flight entertainment and communications have reached $2 billion a year according to the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA). Needless to say, they’re examining future options very carefully. While each airline will seek to tailor and brand its own unique menu of expanded in-flight services, the companies are also working together as one to set critical worldwide operational standards.

The 22-year old non-profit WAEA, headquartered in Chicago, is the official network for more than 100 airlines and 300 suppliers and related companies, all “in pursuit of continual improvements in the airline passenger environment.” WAEA’s Technology Committee has been especially busy in resolving standards issues related to the oncoming in-flight program expansions.

The market potential for suppliers extends beyond commercial airlines to owners of private business jets. Thousands of these jets are owned by corporations or individuals and many others have shared owners. Other moving targets for suppliers will include commercial and leisure cruise ships.

The Satellite Role

Following an era in which many commercial satellite transponders have been changed from private estates to crowded rooming houses, to accommodate the vast and insatiable MHz appetites of both television and Internet movers, now comes the customer need for the nascent “expanded in-flight market.” There are four major players with broadband requirements. Their delivery architectures vary but will include geostationary (GEO), low earth orbit (LEO) and mobile satellite systems (MSS).

The Four Majors

AirTV was founded in 1992 by an international group headed by entrepreneur John D. Larkin. The company has announced four strategic partners: Alcatel Space, Arianespace, BAE Systems and SITA, which works closely with Inmarsat.

Larkin emphasizes that AirTV’s business model is tied to international air traffic. The company’s target will be all travelers on international aircraft, who will be reached via AirTV’s own global network of four geostationary satellites.

The services will be tailored to each airline partner. Larkin feels, however, that the primary content will be television “because of its strong track record.” If a customer airline prefers to emphasize Internet services, he said, that would of course be accommodated.

The plan calls for four satellites to be designed and constructed in France by Alcatel Space. They will be launched by Arianespace into GEO orbit at 12 degrees W, 86 degrees W, 64 degrees E and 180 degrees, with the first bird scheduled to be in orbit by 2003.

AirTV’s unique transmission architecture will interface four different frequencies. Feeder uplinks to each satellite will be in Ka-band; from satellite to aircraft in S-band for both TV and Internet; Internet return, aircraft to-satellite, in L-band; and satellite-return-to-Earth in C-band.

The four transponders on each satellite will each have a digital capacity of 20 Mbps for a total capacity of 80 Mpbs. “This means,” says Larkin, “we will be able to customize each airline’s bouquet, such as in a mix of 40 channels, of live TV, and 40 Mbps of real-time Internet and ‘e’ content.”

AirTV will charge customer airlines at a per-seat rate for basic services. Ancillary revenues will come from TV advertising and on-board duty-free sales.

Connexion by Boeing began its development four years ago and was announced as an in-flight service in April 2000. The system will roll out to complete global coverage and will provide live television and real-time, two-way satellite broadband connections to each aircraft seat. Segments of the Connexion system are already being pre-tested on 11 private airplanes.

Boeing’s proprietary phased-array antenna provides the ability to transmit ground-generated content to existing geostationary satellites and then pull that signal onto an in- flight aircraft traveling at 500 miles-per-hour. According to Boeing Spokesman Terrance Scott, the antenna will provide “a big pipe” enabling high-speed, real-time Internet connectivity. The company advertises a forward, inbound data speed of 5 Mbps.

Boeing has leased 11 Ku-band transponders, and has optioned one more, to access North America on Loral Skynet’s Telstar 6 satellite at 93 degrees W. In addition, Boeing has committed to an unannounced number of Ku-band transponders on the Estrela do Sul 1 satellite of Loral Skynet do Brasil, to be launched to 63 degrees W in mid-2002. The latter will provide connectivity to trans-Atlantic international flights between North America and Europe. More satellite capacity will be acquired to make Boeing’s system worldwide.

A key discriminator in Boeing’s plan is its proposed depth of service beyond television to the transmissions of timely data, and to have real-time access “to the information passengers are accustomed to accessing in their offices or homes.” Airlines will determine the number of TV channels to be offered. In reply to questions about its hourly pricing model per user, Boeing has forecast $17.50 as an average.

In-Flight Network (IFN) is a joint venture between News Corp. and Rockwell Collins with headquarters in Beverly Hills, CA. In March 2000, IFN’s plans were first revealed, stating that IFN would be “revolutionizing air travel as the premier global supplier of broadband media, entertainment and information services and digital content to aircraft and business travelers worldwide.”

Whereas Boeing’s model emphasizes the Internet and data, IFN emphasizes live and cached TV content. A striking difference between the models is IFN’s plan for advertising revenue, capitalizing on venture partner News Corp.’s global stature and expertise in the media world. IFN says advertising revenues will attract “superior” programming and support the costs of broadband Internet access.

IFN intends to operate as a network, like Fox or CBS, in which the affiliates will be the customer airlines. Thus, IFN will aggregate its own program content and not depend on third-party arrangements.

News Corp.’s partner, Rockwell Collins, is a major producer of communication and aviation electronics. For years, it has furnished the air travel industry with its familiar in- flight entertainment systems and Total Entertainment System programming.

The venture has strategic relationships with Globalstar, founded by Loral, and Qualcomm Inc., a leader in wireless products and services through its CDMA digital technology. Globalstar’s constellation of LEO mobile satellites will transport the Internet downlinks from IFN’s affiliate airlines. IFN plans to transport the forward, or uplink, TV and Internet streams in Ku-band through a GEO satellite operator to the airplanes.

Jeffrey Wales is IFN’s CEO. He’s also a senior vice president of News Corp. For proprietary reasons, he would not discuss IFN’s antenna design for receiving content from the GEO satellite system, and could not yet identify the selected GEO satellite system operator.

LiveTV is headquartered in central Florida and is a joint venture of Harris Corp. and Sextant In-Flight Systems. It’s the authorized agent for marketing DirecTV Airborne to the air travel industry in North America through the LiveTV Entertainment System. DirecTV, a unit of Hughes Electronics Corp., has more than nine and a half million subscribers for its direct-to-home satellite television service.

In the near future, LiveTV’s marketing to the air travel industry will likely include the new bundled service “DirecTV Broadband Powered by DirecPC” which will broaden its service beyond TV channels to bi-directional e-mail and Internet content. At the present time, LiveTV offers 24 in-flight DirecTV channels but can dynamically add many more, according to Glenn Latta, vice president of LiveTV’s corporate development.

DirecTV’s experience with in-flight began in a trial on a Delta 767 on August 9, 1996. There was a single channel with overhead monitors and, as Latta recalls, passengers argued vociferously as to which channel should be seen. This reporter asked, “Like in a sports bar?” Latta replied, “Exactly.”

LiveTV and its principal service, DirecTV Airborne, can be found currently on Legend and Jet Blue, two U.S. regional airlines. By the spring of 2001, Alaska Air will be trying out DirecTV Airborne on their Boeing 737-400s. A factor to track is the widely publicized possibility that News Corp. (see IFN above) may acquire the Hughes Electronics interests from General Motors, including DirecTV.

Contributing Writer Robert N. Wold is based in California. His E-mail address is robertnwold@home.com


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