AIN Blog: Iridium Declares Goal To ‘Own’ the Cockpit

 - September 27, 2011, 8:43 AM

With a narrower pipe but greater reach for voice and data than its rival Inmarsat, the Iridium satellite network is becoming increasingly relevant for aircraft cockpits.

Iridium cleared a significant milestone this summer when the FAA endorsed its satcom service for safety-critical ATC communications, making available a lower-cost solution for future datalink messaging requirements between air and ground. The possibility that Iridium will provide real estate on its second-generation satellites for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) receivers makes possible global tracking of aircraft and reinforces ADS-B Out performance mandates coming into play in Europe and the U.S.

Once a bankrupt company, Iridium Communications says its subscriber base has grown by more than 25 percent every year for the past five years. The company announced on September 12 that it had surpassed 500,000 billable subscribers. Aviation is a small piece of that, representing less than 10 percent of revenue, according to Iridium CEO Matthew Desch. But aviation also is a growth market and sentimental favorite for Desch, a private pilot and long-time AOPA member, who earlier this year became an AOPA trustee.

Desch was among speakers last week at a conference in Williamsburg, Va., sponsored by satcom equipment provider International Communications Group (ICG), a company well positioned to ride the gathering Iridium wave. In so many words, he conceded to Inmarsat and other satcom providers the back end of the plane, with its emphasis on broadband entertainment and connectivity, saying Iridium seeks to “own the cockpit.” He elaborated: “We’ve been the volume leader while Inmarsat is the speed leader. Our strategy is to really focus on the cockpit so that we can be in every cockpit we can be in.” While Iridium is also interested in cabin applications for its service, Desch said, “We really do believe we’re optimized for the cockpit.”

Gaining FAA’s endorsement for “FANS over Iridium,” or FoI (FANS referring to Future Air Navigation System ATC datalink communications), was just the beginning. “We’re not resting on our laurels with FoI,” Desch said. “We think there’s a lot more technology we can bring to bear in the cockpit. We think there’s a lot more we can do with broadband players, both commercially and technically, to integrate our services so that operators can take advantage of the best of both.”

By hosting ADS-B receiver payloads on each of its 66 Iridium Next satellites, scheduled to launch from 2015 to 2017, the company will be able to provide real-time surveillance of ADS-B-equipped aircraft “anywhere on the planet,” Desch said.

The service would be a one-way data feed to air navigation service providers and other interested parties based on 1090 MHz extended squitter broadcasts, the link used by air carriers and business jets, but not by smaller GA aircraft. Iridium would provide the surveillance service as part of a consortium with other aerospace companies. Initially, the satellite company would earn payload hosting fees, then make its share of money selling ADS-B data–a revenue proposition of $1 billion to $2 billion, Desch figures.

The Iridium service, Desch said, with its focus on oceanic airspace beyond radar coverage, would complement rather than compete against domestic ADS-B deployments and ADS-Contract (ADS-C) arrangements involving a contract between the aircraft and ground system. That includes the nationwide ADS-B network being deployed in the U.S. by ITT, which in addition to supplying surveillance data to FAA has the right to sell some information commercially.

As it turns out, ITT is communicating with Iridium on the proposed ADS-B hosted payloads. The two networks would be “complementary; in fact, we’re working with ITT,” Desch said. “They certainly would be a partner in some ways in that they have to integrate this data into existing [ATC] systems to put this on the controller’s screen, and I think they certainly would get work out of that. We’re even considering them as a systems engineering or maybe even a payload provider, so there’s a lot of discussions with ITT. They’re supportive; they understand the value.”