How Spot Beams Will Help Panasonic Provide Faster Wifi Onboard for Travelers Without Ka Band

I’m enjoying a Lava Flow on the beach right now, so feel free to grab a glass and a tiny umbrella and join me while you read about what I learned about onboard wifi on my visit to Panasonic headquarters.

A couple weeks ago, the crew at Panasonic Avionics invited me down to their headquarters to talk shop about inflight internet. I have to say it was a very interesting learning experience. From Panasonic’s point of view, the rush to newer frequency Ka band offerings isn’t necessary despite all the hype. Panasonic sees things differently and has its own solution for providing fast wifi that does seem to be getting good traction. (Singapore Airlines just announced it’s onboard.) Excuse me for getting a Spot Beamlittle wonky here, but let’s talk about spot beams.

I sat with David Bruner, VP of Global Communications Services for Panasonic Avionics and he laid out how Panasonic is going about tackling this project. For travelers, the issue with wifi is, of course, speed. When there were very few people using the service and they weren’t using a lot of bandwidth, speed wasn’t as much of an issue. But the usage has been exploding and it’s only going to grow. Today, generally 5 to 10 percent of passengers on Panasonic-equipped airplanes use internet service. (On Turkish, where the internet is free to passengers, they’ll see 50 to 100 people on some flights.) Of course, the number of people who will want to log on will continue to grow.

But it’s not just about the number of people. It’s about how much bandwidth each person uses. In just a short time, usage per passenger on Lufthansa (which has the Panasonic system) has doubled to an average of 120 MBs per flight. It’s not going to go down, so how can this problem be solved?

Ka Isn’t The Only Answer
Many have touted newer Ka (“kay-ay“) band frequency options as the way forward. JetBlue will be installing that on its fleet (someday) and United will have that on a chunk of its domestic fleet as well. For the lion’s share, however, United has gone with Panasonic as have several others. But Panasonic isn’t going to Ka band. It’s sticking with Ku band satellite technology despite the suggestion by many (including me) that Ku band bandwidth is just too expensive. According to Panasonic, it’s not the frequency that’s expensive but rather the way it’s deployed today.

The problem is one of efficiency. My understanding after a brief technical overview is that the general way that the satellite is set up is to broadcast over a very broad area. This gives maximum coverage over wide expanses; something that’s important when you really need global coverage, but it means that the power isn’t going to be particularly strong in any one place. So it won’t be as fast and it will cost more since the satellite is covering such a wide area and the wifi providers aren’t going to use everything they’re paying for.

What Panasonic has done is partner with Intelsat on its new EpicNG program. In other words, Intelsat is putting this new network up into space and Panasonic will be buying a chunk of the end product. This isn’t a Ka band program but rather Ku band. This is great for Panasonic because by the time it’s up and running in 2015/2016, there will be 600 to 700 airplanes already using Panasonic’s current Ku service. And that means that there won’t be expensive antenna changes required on each aircraft to use the new service.

According to Panasonic, they were ready to switch to Ka band if they needed to do it, but they didn’t see any real value. This EpicNG offering should do everything you could want, or so they say. And there is no service disruption while we wait for it to launch so airlines can start installing it today.

What this does is utilize spot beams in heavily-trafficked areas. Instead of just trying for breadth of coverage, Panasonic will focus some of its bandwidth on specific air traffic corridors. There will be several spot beams pointing toward the US, over the North Atlantic, and over Eurasia. The result is that in the 2015-2018 time frame, these spot beams should cover about 85 percent of the demand.

What about everywhere else? There will still be satellite coverage over those areas but it will be broad beam. The bandwidth will be less by the time it gets to the airplane, but with fewer planes over those areas it’s not as important because demand will be lower. As demand grows, there is always the opportunity to add more coverage if needed. It just costs money to do it. (In fact, all of this costs a silly amount of money.)

When a Spot Beam Isn’t Ideal
There is one other interesting piece here. Spot beams aren’t all sunshine and roses. The biggest problem is that if you want to send information TO several aircraft, you would have to repeat it in every spot beam. This doesn’t matter for pure internet access because each person is sending and receiving individual data. But Panasonic has a live television option that it broadcasts to all airplanes. The spot beams are only about 1.5 degrees wide (just under 600 miles at the equator and less the closer you get to the poles) so they aren’t very big. It would cost a ton to repeat the broadcast in every spot beam. So what do they do?

Panasonic isn’t just buying spot beam capacity here. There will also be a broad area of coverage the overlays the spot beams so that Panasonic can continue to push live television and more while keeping costs down. (This is the same thing that will cover the areas not covered by spot beams for regular internet access.)

The upshot here, according to Panasonic, is that bandwidth costs should come down. In fact, it should be the same or better than Ka band. It seems Ka band antennas are more expensive right now because they’re newer but that will inevitably come down as well. Still, that will just make the costs equal. For Panasonic, the cost to stick with Ku band is way cheaper since it doesn’t require replacing existing equipment on aircraft. It also doesn’t require getting new regulatory approvals from each country (209 signed today) as it would have to do with Ka band.

This was a very interesting visit for me. It sounds like Panasonic should have a very strong product. I’ll just keep looking at which airlines go with which offerings because that should tell the tale. I will say this – Panasonic doesn’t appear to be the only one who believes in this technology. Gogo signed a deal with satellite provider SES to do something very similar. There is definitely room for competition here since eventually, I imagine every airplane will have wifi of some sort.

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