This story begins on the floor of the recent APEX Conference in Long Beach, CA where we were inundated with a Ka Band satellite buzz as the next new thing…’the Ku killer’ as one pundit noted. After digging a while we found out that there are conflicting views on that last quote; however, we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Ka Band lies at the high end of the IEEE Frequency Band. It is roughly twice the frequency of Ku.

We also note that our story on Ka Band in-flight connectivity will be at least in 2 parts – first the technology feasibility and the next reporting will include our coverage with the Ku vendors. In part one, we sought out a discussion with Liz Young, whose credentials include Inmarsat, Comsat, SITA and others. We asked Liz about the Ka feasibility and she told IFExpress the following:

“First, re: Ka Band coverage, yes, there are satellites available. (You can Google just the words “Ka Band satellites” and get even more info.), but (a) not clear they are optimized for mobile and/or aeronautical applications, and (b) as with the still existing Ku Band satellite problem, there is no global network of Ka Band satellites — or even enough of them to cover all the significant land masses. For example, no Ka Band satellites cover northern Europe (Scandinavian countries and Russia). So, if an interested airline flies on narrowly defined routes, e.g., just within the US, it may be possible for them to use Ka-band but ocean regions (or portions of them) are not covered and some land masses are not covered.”

We then asked about the physics challenges and she noted, “As we discussed, it’s relatively easy to get signals up from the earth-based ground stations to the satellite(s) and then down to the aircraft, BUT getting signals from the aircraft up to the satellite requires highly sophisticated antennas that can really focus their beams so that there is not interference with other beams/Ka Band satellites. This makes Ka Band OK for one-way transmissions TO the aircraft, e.g., non-safety services such as video, perhaps, but tricky for up linking from the plane. You need to talk with people manufacturing (or planning to manufacture) the antennas. The advantage when (if) Inmarsat develops Ka-band is that they WILL have a global system, covering everything except the Polar Regions — just as they do now with L Band.”

She closed with, “Even with Ku Band today, the vendors saying they offer Ku Band services (e.g., ARINC, Panasonic) have to piece together transponder leases from dozens of companies with Ku-band satellites. And Intelsat, which does have global Ku Band coverage, does not have enough power on their links to work with (necessarily) small aircraft antenna. Remember the formula: the more power on the satellite, the smaller the receiving/transmitting antenna can be on the mobile platform (aircraft). That’s why we always want to ask about the up/down power on these satellites — is it optimized for very small antennas and it is optimized for small antennas that need to BOTH transmit and receive!!”

At the show we sought a few experts on aircraft antenna design and were assured that the frequencies involved in Ka Band will challenge designers. The Tecom folks told us that one of the misconceptions was antenna size. It is common knowledge that as frequencies go up antenna size goes down (a generality, for sure), and airlines and aircraft manufactures want to reduce the Ku Band antenna footprints. Guess what, that is probably not going to happen, according to the experts. These manhole-sized antenna footprints are here to stay because the difficulty in delivering an antenna beam accurately (read: narrow beam) will require a bigger antenna aperture, not to mention the need to support the required gain for a greater bandwidth signal. The arguments go on – considerations for satellites transponder power, spot beam coverage, antenna slew rate/accuracy – from where we sit it is a ‘case closed’ for smaller antennas. Another issue that crops up is the FCC/ITU has not designated any Ka Band frequencies for use by aviation, are we looking at an ‘experimental’ designation? Also remember, as the signals are beamed down to the aircraft, they impinge on the land below. Interference here is a big factor affecting this allocation, not to mention rain fade. On the positive side, as one goes up in frequency, the effective bandwidth is increased (the amount of information to be sent). The pie-in-the-sky here is increased data rates – say from 1 to 2 Mbps to 16 to 20 Mbps. This is a big deal.

Finally, we asked another industry expert, who preferred to remain anonymous, and he kindly answered our questions.
1. Please comment on the possibility, reality, difficulties, features and/or benefits of Ka Band, pax connectivity.
Answer: “Ka Band will provide the airlines with significantly larger bandwidth to each aircraft at a greatly reduced cost per bit (service cost). This lower service cost will not be the significant driver to Ka Band acceptance. The large capital outlay for equipping an airline fleet with Ka Band will still remain and be the limiter to the uptake of Ka Band in the future. If the price of the Ka Band equipment is set in the range of SwiftBroadband – $150K – then there may be a larger take up. Ku Band equipment is now priced in the $250K+ range and this has severely curtailed the growth of this service.”

2. What commercial Ka Band “birds” are there today? What plans exist for a Ka Band future satcom design/dev and launching?
Answer: “I know of only two announced Ka Band systems that will provide access for aircraft: ViaSat with their ViaSat-1 satellite providing North American coverage only in 2011 and; Inmarsat with their global Ka Band system (Global Xpress), launching in 2014.”

3. Your assessment of the future Ka Aero availability?
Answer: “North America – ViaSat via ViaSat-1 Ka Band satellite in 2011. Inmarsat via Global Xpress in 2014. I know of no others. Needless to say, Inmarsat’s Global Xpress with its near global coverage will have a distinct advantage over any regional Ka Band satellites when being considered by commercial airlines.”

4. Any other statement you would like to provide, or observations that should be noted, for our readers, about Ka Band applicability pax/crew adaptability?
Answer: “If there is going to be take-up of Ka Band services on commercial airlines, it will be driven by Inmarsat entering the market and providing longevity of service and an industry-wide service (passenger and crew) and equipment participation. That stability is what the airlines will need to see before they take the plunge into Ka Band services. The lack of a strong, large and committed player is what has hampered the Ku Band commercial airlines market.”

Lastly, remember The New Technology Rule: For every in-place technical breakthrough there is another, eclipsing technology in the wings (no pun intended) and it usually takes another 3 – 5 years and billions of dollars to get there. This is especially true in aviation!

Here are some links for background, if you are not afraid of words like Kalman Filters, Markov models, etc – read with caution and a bit of skepticism!

Rain fade

Northrop Grumman Tests First Airborne Ka-Band Satellite Terminal

JetBlue and ViaSat Announce 21st Century Inflight Broadband Connectivity

Inmarsat Set To Provide High-Speed Internet

Ka-band VSATs: Blazing the Next Great Frontier

If you don’t remember our teaser from the last issue of IFExpress, we are about ready to roll-out the IFE version of opinion editorial pieces, and yes, we have found our speaker but we will keep his name quite for the moment. We were looking for a speaker who was not afraid to ask the difficult questions and propose answers to the IFE, airline, and aviation business in general. Here are a few of his submitted topics: “If IFE is easy, why have it at all”, “Learning from Homer Simpson and GM”, “Why size doesn’t matter”, the list goes on. “Education thru Confrontation” is his model and you know that you will have to read what he says… you will be amused, entertained, educated, and yes, you may also disagree.