U.S. airlines seeking faster, more reliable Wi-Fi soon will have a new option, after France’s Thales, which has long focused on created embedded in-flight entertainment systems for passenger cabins, said Monday it will sell its own Internet platform in the Americas.
Thales is working with Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES to produce the new system, and it will be operational next summer. At first, the platform will rely on two Ka-Band satellites already in orbit, but the companies plan to launch a third satellite in 2020 that they claim will be optimized for the aviation market. Once the third satellite called SES-17 is operational, the system will work best over North and South America, as well as above the Atlantic Ocean, and the Thales and SES say the technology will provide plenty of bandwidth even on high-traffic routes.
Thales and SES will be entering a crowded market with several established players, including Gogo, Immersat and ViaSat, and it’s not clear how much better the new offer will be than what is already available or planned from competitors. Thales and SES gave few details about speeds airlines can expect, though they promised the system will offer “ultra-high speeds” and it support video streaming, games, social media and live television. Thales CEO Patrice Caine also said in a press briefing that he knows passengers expect the experience to be at least as good as at their homes or offices.
“You don’t want a degraded service compared to what you experience on a day-to-day basis on the ground,” he said.
Most U.S. airlines already have preferred Wi-Fi providers, but some have shown a willingness to switch if a new competitor offers a materially better service. American Airlines, which had exclusively used Gogo for its domestic fleet, recently decided to install ViaSat’s system on some new deliveries. Caine said Thales has been discussing its offer with “leading airlines” in the United States, though he declined to name them.
In the briefing, SES CEO Karim Michel Sabbagh appeared to obliquely criticize ViaSat, which uses the same satellites for its home broadband service as for the service it offers to airlines, including JetBlue Airways and United Airlines. Any firm that does that, Sabbagh said, is automatically forced to make “trade-offs” to satisfy both groups.
“It’s true that there are a number of satellites over the Americas that are labeled as high-throughput satellites that are either up there or about to be launched,” he said. “But here is how you can think about it: None of these was designed with aeronautical as the core or heart or the DNA of the satellite.”
Thales’ Caine was asked why the companies had not chosen to focus on Asia, considering few of the continent’s major airlines have Wi-Fi. He replied that the United States, even with its many competitors, is likely an easier market to enter, because it is one single market, with relatively little government regulation.
Had Thales tried to enter Asia, he said, the company would have had to navigate regulations of several countries to provide access. Or, if it had tried to focus on China, it would have had to work with the country’s tricky bureaucracy.
Caine said he is confident here’s room for Thales in the United States.
“The U.S. market is a very important,’ he said.