Panasonic Avionics stays the course despite investigation
March 17, 2017
WASHINGTON — Panasonic Avionics Corp.’s chief salesman for in-flight connectivity said a U.S. investigation into alleged corrupt practices that led to the resignation of the company’s two top executives has had no impact on the company’s airline broadband strategy.
David Bruner said he has been reassuring customers worldwide since the Feb. 2 announcement of the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigation that Panasonic remains as committed as ever to deploying satellite-delivered broadband the world over.
Addressing the Satellite 2017 conference here March 8, Bruner said a large company like Panasonic has enough corporate firepower to fill key management positions without veering off course.
“We are not going to miss a beat” in meeting customer expectations, Bruner said.
Panasonic Avionics is one of a half-dozen companies that have been purchasing large quantities of satellite capacity to cover the principal air corridors and then signing on airline customers. The others are Gogo, Global Eagle Entertainment, Thales InFlyt Experience, ViaSat Inc. and Inmarsat.
‘The winners will be those who can absorb losses’
All of them have been enjoying rapid growth in their revenue but whether all of them can survive the high cost of the current global ramp-up is unclear. More aircraft each year want connectivity, and those that already have it want higher throughput to satisfy passenger appetites, with no increase in cost.
Bruner said it’s likely that only those “with big pockets, who can afford to lose money for a long time,” are likely to survive. Asked what the current price per megabit delivered to an aircraft is, he said it varies by airline and region. Whatever figure is valid for a given contract, he said, “you better be dropping it by 20 percent a year if you are going to keep pace.”
One of the major gaps in Panasonic’s coverage, over the South Pacific Ocean, is scheduled to be filled with the scheduled April 25 launch of the Eutelsat 172B satellite to 172 degrees east. Panasonic has purchased a high-throughput Ku-band payload for its in-flight connectivity service.
Once in service, the 172B satellite “will dramatically help our situation” in the region, Bruner said. Panasonic has also contracted for capacity on satellites operated by Intelsat, SES, Telesat and Yahsat.
Next-gen to combine wideband TV and extra-high-throughput spots
Bruner and Panasonic Avionics have been teasing the market for two years with talk of a regional “XTS” or extra-high-throughput, satellite system on several satellite platforms.
Bruner said Panasonic is in discussions with several satellite fleet operators with available frequency allocations and orbital slots in the targeted regions.
“We have a wide beam overlay so we can broadcast TV while doing high-speed data through the spot beams,” Bruner said of XTS. “These payloads also provide a wide-area service that essentially extends high throughput into very sparsely travelled areas. It will give us coverage beyond [Inmarsat’s Global Xpress]. Radical changes in satellite technology were necessary to deliver that type of capacity. It really changes who we are as a provider.”
Bruner declined to speculate when Panasonic would announce a contract with one or more satellite operators for the XTS payloads. “All this stuff is harder and more expensive — if everybody would just agree to the price we wan to pay, it would all be easier.”
Bruner said Panasonic Avionics expects to have 86 percent of airline flight routes covered with HTS capacity, and to have 80 percent covered by the XTS service by 2020 — a schedule that would require Panasonic conclude contracts this year.
Old-fashioned TV remains popular with airlines
Unlike some of its competitors, Panasonic Avionics has made in-cabin television a centerpiece of its overall in-flight-entertainment/connectivity strategy.
“Broadcast television is a tremendous application,” Bruner said. “It’s probably the most popular service that we offer to the airlines and probably the fastest-growing segment. There’s demand for more channels and higher resolution.”
Bruner said the cost of raw satellite capacity has been dropping fast, a necessary development given that many passengers refuse to pay even a modest price for in-flight WiFi.
But aircraft broadband terminals and above all the antennas fitted on top of the aircraft fuselage have not kept up.
“Antennas are the Achilles’ Heel of the aviation sector,” Bruner said. “Terminal equipment has not made the same progress, or at the same pace,” as satellite capacity. “In the aviation sector you have a very small aperture, and the disadvantage is that you want it flat so you don’t impact the aerodynamics of the aircraft. Even small improvements in antenna technology can dramatically effect the cost of the Mbps to the user.”
Peter B. de Selding