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The new Intelsat EpicNG satellites are promising improved performance that will directly benefit airline passengers in staying connected anywhere they might be flying

It has been an important year for Intelsat, the leading provider of satellite services. On 27 January 2016, Intelsat 29e, the first of the EpicNG high throughput satellites (HTS), was launched successfully from Kourou in French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. Manufactured by Boeing, it is now in geostationary orbit, 35,786km above northern Brazil and serving customers in North and Latin America and the North Atlantic region. It was followed on 24 August by Intelsat 33e, again launched from Kourou on an Ariane 5. It will serve Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia from a position north-east of the Seychelles. 


Unfortunately, due to a malfunction in the primary thruster used to raise the satellite to the correct orbit, reaching that geostationary position has taken longer than planned and the satellite will be ready for service sometime in the first quarter of 2017. The final satellite in the constellation, Horizon 3e, which is expected to be launched in the second half of 2018, will provide coverage for the Asia-Pacific region from its position north-east of Nauru. This satellite is a joint venture between Intelsat and JSAT of Japan.


There is a mix of wide area and spot beams – depending on the application, wide beams can be used to broadcast video and other content to the aircraft, while spot beams can be used to support two-way, high-speed internet traffic. It is important to provide capacity where it is needed, so the spot beams have been positioned to provide coverage of the airways that aircraft follow on oceanic routes, but this new constellation takes advantage of new technology to deliver a more powerful and more efficient service. Unlike previous generations of Intelsat satellites, which were ‘hardwired’ at time of manufacture – and at launch were fixed in terms of beam connectivity and bandwidth allocation – HTS can be reconfigured from the ground to meet traffic demands and business needs over the life of the satellite. The use of spot beam technology and frequency reuse also boosts capacity, which is expected to be 10 times more throughput than a traditional satellite. In fact, Intelsat 29e and Intelsat 33e have already shown improvements of up to 165% in efficiency, while next-generation hardware has demonstrated potential efficiency gains of up to 330%.


The satellites will be used by a number of industry sectors. For commercial aviation, EpicNG provides links through Ku- and Ka-bands (the satellites also use C-band, which is better suited to ground services) and promises to deliver performance that will give passengers the same connectivity services as they can expect at home.


Given the number of aircraft already equipped with satcoms, an important selling point for Intelsat is that existing equipment will also show improvements, although this will vary between manufacturers. Equally important, the new system has been designed with an open architecture and engineered for backwards compatibility, allowing users to continue with existing hardware. Service providers will also have increased control and so will be able to offer their end-users customised, differentiated solutions, even defining such service characteristics as speed and hardware. 


Panasonic Avionics was an early adopter (see box story) but Gogo has also joined the club, signing up in March 2016. It is limited to Ku-band and will use Intelsat 29e on an interim basis until Intelsat 32e comes on stream in 2017, covering the same area. It will also use Intelsat 33e and Horizon 3e to build a worldwide network. System management will be carried out through the IntelsatOne programme, where the satellite provider controls the day-to-day running of the network from its Mountainside, MD, teleport.


Significantly, the Gogo deal is not limited to just HTS. As well as a geostationary network of satellites, it has signed up with OneWeb, which is planning a low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation from 2019. While Intelsat can cover 99% of the world's populated regions, OneWeb satellites are expected to be the first satellites to enable high performance services at high latitudes and on polar flights, where line of sight to a geostationary satellite over the Equator can be compromised or performance drops off. When the network is fully deployed, Gogo will be able to route traffic across the fully global shared network at 10 Tbps, based on coverage, latency (the time delay as the data travels from aircraft to satellite and vice versa), throughput and other performance criteria. 


The satellite network is the fixed point but the service providers have different product portfolios and multiple frequency band capability is a definitive asset. Another aviation player is Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE), which concluded an agreement in October 2016. It will use eight satellites in Intelsat’s current infrastructure as well as two Intelsat 33e and Intelsat 35e EpicNG satellites. Overall, GEE has contracted satellite services on three of the seven planned Intelsat EpicNG satellites and 17 Intelsat satellites in total. As GEE provides air, land and sea (including cruise ships and superyachts) connectivity, it will utilise C-band as well as Ku-band.  

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