Aviation Broadband/Connectivity Interviews Tech Updates Vertical Markets

In conversation with Neale Faulkner on the launch of the new Inmarsat GX5

Neale Faulkner, Regional VP at Inmarsat Aviation, talks about GX5 satellite launch, emerging consumer trends and the future of inflight connectivity.

What is the current situation in the Middle East with regard to inflight broadband coverage?

Inmarsat already has four operational satellites providing global coverage, not only across the Middle East but across the whole globe. The GX5 satellite, which launched last month, will be a second layer covering the high-density route from the Middle East into Europe and South Asia, adding a huge amount of capacity and bandwidth, which will be available for our airlines and their passengers to enjoy faster broadband speed.

How will Inmarsat’s next-generation broadband services revolutionise connectivity in aircraft, and who will benefit?

When it comes to next-generation connectivity, the good news is that GX, a truly broadband experience akin to that on the ground, is available in the region right now. It’s being used on over 100 aircraft in the Middle East today, with a further couple of hundred due to be installed in the next 12-24 months.

GX is a step change to the services being providing with IFC in the last decade, where we’re now going from slow speeds of only a couple of Mbps, up to 20, 30, 40 or more Mbps, and moving into the 100s of Mbps with our new satellites. It provides a similar experience that you would get on the ground, allowing you to stream movies and content, whether it be Amazon Prime, Netflix or perhaps Skype sessions with your family.

Inflight connectivity has really changed with GX, and passengers are benefiting right now. Of course, the airline also benefits, as it makes their onboard product significantly better, allowing them to grab the 450m ‘floating’ passengers who would be prepared to switch airlines if offered a fast and reliable inflight connectivity service.

How will the launch of Inmarsat’s GX5 satellite enhance inflight broadband coverage in the Middle East?

GX5 is going to provide more capacity and more bandwidth into the region than the previous four satellites combined that have been launched thus far in the GX network. To put this in perspective, all of this capacity is going to be focussed into the specific area of the Middle East up into Europe over to the Indian subcontinent, which means that you’re going to have huge amount of high throughput capacity in just a small region of the Earth.

But more importantly, it’s where a huge amount of air traffic, commercial air traffic, is actually routed on a daily basis. Therefore, this satellite is so important to ensure we meet the demands of passengers not just for today, but for the next 15-20 years, the expected lifespan of GX5.

Could you take us through your roadmap, given you have a whole package planned with the last instalment due for launch in 2023?

Inmarsat has probably one of the most aggressive roadmaps of any satellite operator, especially when you consider that we’re focussed on mobility connectivity services only. Commercial aviation is the key industry for this roadmap, as it’s the one with the biggest potential for growth, and it’s one where we’ve really focussed our innovations in products as a business, to be able to provide a sufficient network going forward. GX5 will be operational early next year. Every year for the next four years, we’ll be launching a new satellite (in some cases more than one satellite per year) with more capacity and more bandwidth available for passengers. This means, in total, we will be bringing a total of 12 satellites onto our GX network by 2023, providing additional layers on top of our already global network.
GX 10a and 10b satellites will be special for a specific reason, as they are highly elliptical orbit satellites covering the polar region, an area that has never been lit up with inflight connectivity bandwidth before. This means that airlines that fly over the polar region, such as from the Middle East into the US, by 2022 will have uninterrupted connectivity throughout the whole flight, whether that be for internet connectivity or even live sports events, live TV channels, IPTV, etc.

As mentioned, every year there’ll be a new satellite being launched, until we get to 12 in 2023. And when we get there, there’ll be additional announcements for further satellites. I’m sure that we’ll keep increasing and putting layers on top of the bandwidth we already have.

We hear recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), in association with Inmarsat, shows that airlines that have successfully installed connected cabins have an immediate opportunity to win $33bn in market value from competitors. How is Inmarsat looking to secure a part of this pie?

The key to achieving the $33bn piece of the pie for airlines is very much around understanding the demographics of the passengers in the next decade. We spoke a lot about 2028 being the pivotal year where there will be more passengers that were born post-1996 – Gen Z and NextGen passengers – than pre-1996. It will be understanding how those Gen Z and NextGen passengers think, where their loyalties are, and how they change their loyalties more than traditional demographics of the previous generations.

Inflight connectivity is able to facilitate their desire to make last-minute purchases while travelling, and allows airlines to monetise the experience of their captive audience for the duration of their flight with offers of hotels, tourist attractions or car hire at their destination. By doing this, airlines are able to grab the predicted $28 per Gen Z passenger, who has the tendency to delay a purchase decision to when they’re onboard. That money is now available for the airline, and that’s how airlines can start to take a piece of that $33bn pie.

What are some of your findings on connectivity in aviation?

I think the changing demographics of passengers is the key focus here, because really what you’re seeing is that millennials onwards, those born from 1981, are digital natives that are used to being connected. When we first introduced our concept of inflight connectivity, we thought it would only be for business people. We were very wrong. The fact is that those that really want inflight connectivity are millennials, Gen Z and the NextGen passengers, who are used to being connected all of the time.

The fact remains that some of the older generations have a preference to use the time onboard to be disconnected, because they’re used to being disconnected in the past. But that’s not the same for millennials, Gen Z and the NextGen, and this is why we really do see a massive uptake in inflight connectivity as these passengers start to become the majority rather than the minority on flights. Airlines need to adapt and accommodate the needs of these digital natives, so as to ensure that they’re being chosen as the airline of choice for these passengers.

As well as providing the right type of inflight connectivity, airlines need to also start thinking about pricing for this service. The debate of whether the inflight connectivity should be free of charge or chargeable is still raging on. But it is likely airlines will eventually be forced into a position which is likely to be a combination between the two, like a freemium model, by providing some element of connectivity for free (time limited, messaging only or specific data allowance), but then charging for a premium service on top of that.

What are the current pain points with regard to providing inflight connectivity, and how will new solutions in the market address them?

One of the most significant pain points in the industry right now is really about getting the equipment onboard the aircraft. It’s very hard to ensure you have a line fit position on every type of aircraft available, or to be able to adapt an aircraft, especially when it’s already in service. It needs a huge amount of time and effort to be able to retrofit an antenna on top of an aircraft. With this complexity comes costs and downtime for an aircraft during any retrofit programme. So one of the strategies we’ve seen from some of our partners is a tendency to support the airlines in getting the equipment onboard, whether financially or through some kind of subsidy for the equipment, in return for some of the potential revenues that can be made from paid service, sponsorship or advertising.

Why has the Dubai Airshow been important for Inmarsat?

From the Middle East perspective, the Dubai Airshow is by far the biggest aviation event taking place in the region. It is one where the big deals are done by many of the Middle East airlines, and it’s one where a lot of our partners and value-added resellers are present. And it is for that reason we need to be involved and be present. Meeting the airline at the same time they order aircraft and understanding what’s happening in the market from competitors and partners alike are key factors for our presence. Even though we are a satellite owner and operator, we need to ensure we are integrated into the whole aviation ecosystem, and the Dubai Airshow is the biggest opportunity for us to do this when it comes to events.