Hybrid satellite solutions to help airlines meet passenger demand for in-flight connectivity

07 May 2024

Reza Rasoulian, vice president, Hughes

Reza Rasoulian, vice president, Hughes

Commercial aircraft serving the cities of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East fly some of the longest non-stop flights in the world. Passengers traveling from Singapore to New York spend over 18 hours in an airplane cabin. From Dubai to Auckland and from Johannesburg to Atlanta are both around 17 hours in the air. What would you do on a trip that long? Chances are, you’d want to get online for some, if not most, of the time in the air.

One survey found that 97% of airline passengers use their personal devices while in the air for everything from work and social media to entertainment. The bottom line is that passengers today expect in-flight entertainment and connectivity when they fly. On-board WiFi is a necessity for many passengers and, therefore, a competitive differentiator for airlines, too. However, the challenge for airlines is that aircraft Wi-Fi networks depend on fixed-bandwidth satellite connections, and as more passengers sign on – some connecting with multiple devices – the networks become slower and slower for all users, to the point that many applications won’t even work. This is frustrating for passengers, especially those who have paid extra for in-flight WiFi.

The geostationary vs. low Earth orbit satellite landscape
In efforts to satisfy the growing demand for in-flight connectivity, global satellite operators launch new, more powerful spacecraft to provide additional broadband. To date, most in-flight connectivity has relied upon satellites in the geosynchronous orbit (GEO) around the Earth. These spacecraft orbit at more than 22,000 miles (36,000km) from Earth. A new generation of satellites operate in low Earth orbit (LEO), between 600 and 1,000 miles (960 and 1,600km) above the planet. Because the LEO satellites are closer, their signal can be picked up with a smaller antenna than a GEO signal. The shorter distance means there is less lag time, or latency, in a connection, an important factor in applications such as streaming and video conferencing.

The two types of satellite connectivity – GEO and LEO – both deliver high-speed bandwidth from space. GEO satellites bring capacity density over busy airport hubs and routes. LEOs bring worldwide coverage – even over oceans and the polar region. And, of course, there’s a difference in the service latency, which is meaningful for some applications, such as when using a VPN. But airlines don’t have to choose which type of satellite connectivity to use in meeting passenger expectations for in-flight WiFi. They can use both.

Meeting in-flight WiFi demand with a hybrid satellite solution
Demand for in-flight connectivity is only going to grow, and a recent report by NSR predicted that it will grow more quickly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia than in any other parts of the world. NSR projects that these three regions will account for nearly half of the revenue growth for in-flight connectivity over the next decade, primarily because the huge populations that are still underserved with airline flights and because there is currently less leisure travel among the populations than in Europe and the Americas.

The challenge for airlines is being able to tap this growing revenue opportunity by providing reliable in-flight WiFi to the passengers who are willing to pay for it. With both a GEO and a LEO connection, plus the necessary intelligent networking software, an airline can deploy a ‘hybrid’ network solution. A dual connection offers more bandwidth for passengers connecting to the internet and improves reliability of those connections for email and other business and entertainment applications. In short, with a GEO and LEO satellite solution, airlines will be able to offer passengers better and more reliable in-flight WiFi than what is currently possible with GEO-only or LEO-only connections.

What’s particularly exciting about a hybrid in-flight connectivity service is that airlines can preserve the considerable investments they’ve already made in GEO solutions. The prospect of ‘ripping and replacing’ GEO antennas and equipment from commercial aircraft is a daunting – and expensive – one. Especially for an airline that has outfitted its fleet with a GEO satellite solution. Instead, airline executives with existing GEO-only receivers on their aircraft can look at hybrid options using LEO to preserve their GEO investments while enhancing their passenger experience at the same time.

NSR predicts that the number of satellite receivers on commercial and private aircraft will increase from 71,000 currently to over 145,000 units by 2032, a growth rate of more than 7% each year. Fed by passenger demand, the aviation industry needs to connect airplanes to satellites that are more technically advanced and more powerful. Airlines need to look for the best solutions, ones that take advantage of all the satellite industry has to offer.