Satcom operator Viasat (Booth V39) is heralding this week at EBACE its impending ViaSat-3 constellation launches, the acquisition of Inmarsat, and a direct-to-operator service plan, while “talking to our partners and customers about the very exciting future this is going to bring,” said James Person, Viasat's senior director of global business development.
Person also addressed the cyberattacks that disrupted Viasat’s Ka-sat network concurrent with Russia’s late February invasion of Ukraine, telling AIN, “There was no impact to aviation, either private or commercial,” though it affected thousands of broadband customers on the ground in the region.
ViaSat-3 is its key to expanding global access to Ka-band connectivity, “which is really the best in terms of the most capacity, allowing people to do everything in the air they do on the ground,” including streaming with multiple devices, videoconferencing, gaming, and high-speed data transfer, Person said.
The Viasat Ka-band footprint includes regions “where most business aviation happens—North and Central America, the North Atlantic tracks, and Europe,” said Person. “But we're not yet global.”
Set to launch at six-month intervals beginning late in the third quarter, the three ViaSat-3 constellation satellites will eliminate the U.S. company’s global gap and “provide an overlay in the high-capacity region,” Person said. The first of the trio, covering the Americas from Hawaii to the mid-Atlantic, will commence service in “the very beginning of 2023.” Europe, Middle East, and Africa coverage will come next, followed by Asia-Pacific with the commissioning of the third ViaSat-3 satellite.
Meanwhile, its Inmarsat (Booth X41) acquisition, announced in November, is scheduled to close in the second half of this year, pending approvals. UK-headquartered Inmarsat was the first to offer Ka-band connectivity to business aviation via its Jet ConneX service (partnered with Honeywell’s JetWave onboard terminals. Though available globally with the exclusion of polar regions, Jet ConneX does not have the capacity Viasat offers.
Person said talking about the integration of their respective services is premature. “The [U.S.] Department of Justice and international organizations are looking at it. We expect it to close by the end of this calendar year. Until then, we’re still operating as separate companies and still effectively competitors.”
Nonetheless, the acquisition “is great for business aviation because it gets us to global more quickly, and provides a backup of some redundancy and resiliency for the ViaSat-3 satellites,” Person said. Additionally, with Inmarsat last year having announced its forthcoming Orchestra dynamic mesh multi-band network, and Viasat filing for systems “beyond ViaSat-3,” their unity creates “an opportunity for us to rationalize and take the best of the plans going forward.”
Here on earth, the company’s direct service plan, Viasat Select, introduced last year, is for end-users who need only basic connectivity, rather than the bundled features available through Viasat’s value-added resellers (VARs) Collins Aerospace, Honeywell, and Satcom Direct.
“We are not competing on price,” Person said of its VARs. “Many individual super-midsize cabin operators didn't need all the services our VARs can offer; they just wanted in-flight connectivity [IFC]. Viasat Select provides that.”
Basic IFC service is $2,795 per month, which includes Viasat’s own proprietary connectivity management tools: Insights, a portal-based app that allows individual or fleet operators to see and manage onboard connectivity in real-time and to plan flights factoring the availability of global connectivity into the routes; and Cruise Central, a mobile app for flight crews that can monitor connectivity status and provide alerts identifying system issues.
“It's our satellite, it's our hardware, the information isn't filtered through another company, and [customer] support comes directly from Viasat,” Person said, explaining the stripped-down service plan’s appeal and rationale.
As for security concerns often raised regarding airborne connectivity applications, “We provide business aviation the same network we provide to the U.S. government’s senior leadership, so it is very secure,” he noted.
Person added that “business right now is through the roof,” citing business aircraft transactions as the primary driver. “We’re seeing a lot of installations in the aftermarket,” he said. “With Covid restrictions ending and preowned inventories at historic low levels, there's a lot of trading of preowned aircraft. And in most large and even super-midsize category aircraft, the new owners are upgrading the connectivity.”
Under a contract signed last year, Flexjet Europe installed Viasat Ka-band systems on its Embraer Praetor fleet, and “owners and customers are over the moon” with the service it provides, Person said. “The ability to fly within Europe and get high-speed connectivity is just something they're not used to.”
Regarding satcom services provided to any entities affected by Russia sanctions related to the Ukraine war, he said, “We've taken a pretty good scrub of our customer list, and I'm not aware of any that have been impacted by the sanctions.” Plans announced last year to expand coverage in Russia are “on hold.”
With the strong demand for high-speed IFC—and for business aviation—Viasat is currently growing “at greater than 30 percent annually,” Person said. “It’s a very exciting future for connectivity.”