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FCC Grants ViaSat License for Ka-band Satellites In-Flight Connectivity

By | July 30, 2013
      A JetBlue aircraft equipped with next-generation in-flight WiFi due to a special experimental license granted to ViaSat from the FAA.
      Image credit: JetBlue

      [Satellite TODAY 7-30-13] The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted ViaSat a blanket license radio station authorization for Ka-band aeronautical earth stations, according to company officials. The license is the first of its kind for mobile Ka-band services, and is expected to offer unprecedented connectivity for commercial aircraft, according to Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s chairman and CEO.

           While the license is similar to what the FCC granted Gogo back in May, Vivien Basilio a senior consultant with Futron Corporation, notes that the global impact for the satellite industry is major this time. “For something this big, that’s a good indicator that the FCC really thinks this [in-flight connectivity] is viable for the market. I think it’s a positive turn of events,” she said.

          Not surprisingly, Dankberg agreed, noting that the FCC decision recognizes that ViaSats’ “advanced technical design of this equipment is compatible with the operating environment in which our other services successfully operate. Now airlines, and their passengers, will have access to an unprecedented amount of bandwidth. We want to let everyone on board be connected at high speed,” he said.

           As far as airlines, the license specifically mentions U.S. JetBlue Airways noting that 400 of its aircraft would benefit from the deal. However, according to JetBlue officials, the airliner still needs approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before it can begin to implement the new technology.

           “The [ViaSat] FCC approval is a necessary step in the process and will allow us to continue on our path to offering our Fly-fi [in-flight WiFi] products to our customers. There are still necessary steps ahead of us including FAA approval,” said Jamie Perry, director of JetBlue’s product development, during an exclusive interview with SatelliteTODAY.com.

           According to Perry, the airline will be introducing new in-flight products in more detail later in 2013, and has already committed to offering a free basic “Fly-Fi” service for the first 30 aircraft where the new technology will first be available.
       
      The 15-year, renewable license permits operation of the ViaSat Mantarray,a low-profile airborne antenna on ViaSat’s Ka-band satellite fleet of ViaSat 1, WildBlue 1 and ANik F2.

                In the fall of 2013, the new technology is expected to improve in-flight broadband service by providing enough bandwidth for every passenger on the plane to enjoy high-speed Internet, Dankberg said. However, the FCC approval faced criticism and other obstacles. According to Basilio, Row 44 was one of the main critics of the deal. She noted that on March 22, 2013, attorneys representing Row 44 wrote a letter to the FCC describing a laundry list of objections to the deal.

            “Row 44 has had two principal concerns regarding the ViaSat applications from the time they were filed. First, Row 44 has been troubled that ViaSat has sought to ignore the novelty of its sui generis proposal to provide aeronautical mobile-satellite service (“AMSS”) in the Ka-band, and has proceeded as if the existing fixed satellite service (“FSS”) rules were applicable to it without the requirement of further technical showings and evaluation of discrete public interest considerations,” the letter stated.

      But objections to the deal didn’t end there as Row 44’s attorneys continued noting that their additional objections were even more significant. “Second, and even more significantly, Row 44 is concerned that the design deficiencies of ViaSat’s Mantarray antenna have the potential to disrupt both existing and future FSS and MSS applications in the Ka-band,” the letter stated. Row 44 officials could not be reached for comment prior to publication.

          Meanwhile, Basilio said time was among the largest obstacles the deal faced, noting that the approval process took a total of 15 months to be completed. After waiting 10 months, Martin St. George, JetBlue’s senior vice president of marketing and commercial strategy, sent the FCC a letter requesting the process be expedited.

           “JetBlue urges the FCC to expedite the processing to grant ViaSat’s permanent authority,” St. John wrote in a Feb. 12, 2013 letter. Ultimately the FCC responded five months later in July of 2013. In the same letter, St. John also requested that the FCC grant temporary permission to test market the new technology in a limited number of aircraft.

           Ultimately, the temporary application was determined to be moot after the permanent application was granted, said Daryl Hunter, director of regulatory affairs at ViaSat, during an exclusive interview with SatelliteTODAY.com. “At the end of the day they dismissed it because they granted the underlying application. But we did have an experimental license separately, which allowed us to do some test flights, so we weren’t particularly held up,” Hunter added.

           Overall, ViaSat officials were pleased, despite the lengthily application process. “It was a little longer than we would have liked [to gain FCC approval], but it wasn’t unexpected. This is the first mobile system in Ka-band, it’s understandable that they [The FCC] would have policy issues. We knew it would take the FCC some time,” Hunter said.

           In the meantime, consultants remain optimistic. Basilio said she thinks the 15-year deal “is really good for the satellite industry as a whole.”