Satellite giant to boost Wi-Fi on planes

The most powerful commercial broadband satellite ever built has just gone into orbit on an Ariane rocket.

ViaSat-2, which is to be stationed above the Americas, has a total throughput capacity of about 300 gigabits per second.

The spacecraft was part of a dual payload on the Ariane flight. It was joined by Eutelsat 172B, a UK/French-built platform to go over the Pacific.

Both satellites will be chasing the rampant market for Wi-Fi on aeroplanes.

Airlines are currently in a headlong rush to equip their fleets with connections that will allow passengers to use their mobile devices in mid-air.

More than 6,000 commercial aircraft worldwide were offering an on-board Wi-Fi service in 2016; it is expected more than 17,000 will be doing so by 2021.

In-flight internet has traditionally had a terrible reputation, but there is a feeling now that the latest technology really can give passengers a meaningful slice of bandwidth and at a competitive price.

The Ariane left the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana at 20:45 local time, Thursday (23:45 GMT), ejecting the satellites into their transfer orbits about half an hour later.

Both must now get themselves into their final positions. Noteworthy is the fact that ViaSat-2 and 172B will be using electric engines to do this.

These work by accelerating and expelling ions at high speed. The process provides less thrust than a standard chemical engine, but saves substantially on propellant mass.

Image copyright AIRBUS DS Image caption Eutelsat-172B is the first satellite from Airbus to use all-electric propulsion for orbit-raising and station-keeping

That saving can be traded to get either a lower-priced launch ticket, or to pack even greater capacity into the satellite’s communications payload for no additional weight.

The US, Boeing-built ViaSat-2 uses a mix of chemical and electric propulsion, but Eutelsat’s platform is all-electric – the first such design to come from Europe’s biggest space manufacturer, Airbus.

ViaSat-2 will be providing broadband services to fixed customers across North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and a portion of northern South America.

But the satellite is also configured to service planes and ships, and in particular it is looking to grab a significant share of business out over the Atlantic.

The aviation sector currently is a key battleground for satellite operators; it is where they are seeing double-digit growth.

In the US, working with airlines such as JetBlue, ViaSat has already found success through its existing high-throughput ViaSat-1 spacecraft.

With the extra capacity on ViaSat-2, it aims to do better still.

“We think people want to use their devices in the air the way they do on the ground; that’s the best we’ve made,” said ViaSat Chief Operating Officer Rick Baldridge.

“JetBlue delayed their in-flight wi-fi offering, waiting for us, and now they’re giving it away for free and we’re providing 12 megabits per second to every seat, including streaming video,” he told BBC News.

ViaSat-2’s “footprint” touches the western coast of Europe, but aeroplanes travelling further east will be handed seamlessly to a better-positioned Eutelsat spacecraft, which should enable passengers to stay connected all the way across to Turkey if needs be.

This is one of the benefits of the strategic alliance that the two satellite companies have formed. And in time this will see the pair operate a ViaSat-3 platform together over Europe. This spacecraft is being built to have a total throughput capacity of one terabit per second.

 

Zainab Sa’id