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Satellites change the meaning of "Airplane Mode"

A longtime friend and former colleague received an angry email blast from his boss the other day.

What was interesting to me about this was not that it was totally unjustified and outrageous (my friend is a champion), but that his boss had written and sent the email from a business class seat in a plane flying over the Persian Gulf.

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, such connectivity was unthinkable. International airline flights were disconnected zones where emails might have been written, but not sent. 

For many of us, they were a refuge from the relentlessness of connectivity, an opportunity to sit back and binge on Game of Thrones without having to field messages – sent through any means – from various stakeholders such friends, family, colleagues or creditors.

Clearly, those days are numbered as more and more airlines see inflight connectivity as a core part of their service offering. It is only a matter of time before it becomes as generic as choosing between the chicken or the beef.

In all of this, of course, satellite technology is key. Many of us have used air to ground (ATG) connectivity on US domestic flights, but up until now satellites have been too expensive for short haul routes, and have lacked the capability to deliver globally.

Now, however, satellite based systems can deliver global coverage and fill in the gaps where ATG cannot go. Increasingly, providers are adding new beams to deliver fresh capacity for more congested flight areas.

Immarsat, as an example, has made a name as a provider to the maritime industry, but has spent five years building a Global Express network specifically for aviation. We can expect more to come from them, and from others in the satellite industry.

Immarsat was one of several major satellite companies exhibiting at CommunicAsia 2017 in Singapore last month. I had a chat to the people from Immarsat and was interested in why they were exhibiting there rather than at nearby Broadcast Asia, where they may traditionally have been found.

The response revealed much about the industry’s growth, and why so much is being spent in building out capacity in new constellations at every level, from low to medium orbits to the higher GEO satellites.

The coverage, capacity and low latency to be delivered by the next-generation of satellites will be critical in making the world of 5G a reality faster, and without ruinous spending on terrestrial networks.

The enabling connectivity for autonomous cars, for example, is impossible to imagine without the coverage from satellites. The appetite for data – from military use to consumers using mobile video – is growing faster than anyone can put up new towers.

The message is that without next generation satellites, 5G networks will take longer to deploy, lack the necessary coverage and will be more expensive to build.

As one satellite executive told a CommunicAsia session, this is no longer a “dinosaur industry” used to fill in the gaps where terrestrial networks cannot deliver.

Connectivity is advancing rapidly, and this means a new era for the satellite industry.

It means not only that a boss can send an employee an abusive email from high in the sky over the Persian Gulf, but that the employee can fire back his resignation letter within minutes, to a business class seat 30,000 feet above the earth.

It gives a whole new spin to the idea of “Airplane Mode” and we need to get used to it.