June 11, 2024

Standards Are a Must for the Future of Inflight Connectivity

Aviation Connectivity

The satellite industry is picking up the pace of innovation – new orbits, new managed services, new software-defined technology – to expand service offerings to more customers.

“5G NTN provides an opportunity to harmonize IFC standards and overcome the limitations of proprietary satellite technologies, which prevents airlines from pursuing technology upgrades and inhibits the interchangeability of equipment.” – Olivier Hauw, Fast Track Leader Connectivity at Airbus and Co-chair of the SAA NTN Working Group

Meanwhile, the telecom industry, via its 3GPP initiative, continues to make progress in 5G standards and deployments throughout the world. Yet, the promise of large-scale deployment of 5G wireless networks that offer ubiquitous and reliable global coverage will require complementary networks in other domains – including SATCOM.

Seamless Global Coverage for Aviation

Terrestrial networks currently offer 5G services to areas already being served by existing cellular technologies. The obvious opportunity is interoperability between satellite, cellular and wireless domains to deliver on seamless service requirements. The advancements for integrating the non-terrestrial networks (NTN), especially SATCOM, can help expand the reach of 5G technology geographically and into new use cases.

“The SAA NTN Working Group will evolve its studies on 5G NTN connectivity for the aviation industry and present its findings to 3GPP.” – Rubén Díaz Calvo, Principal Technology Platform Manager at Vodafone and Co-chair of the SAA NTN Working Group

The aviation industry is one of those markets which can benefit substantially from 5G NTN. In fact, aviation is expected to reach 9.4 billion global passengers this year with an annual growth rate up to $10 billion by 2032 [Source: NSR’s Aeronautical Satcom Markets April 2023]. We at ST Engineering iDirect count aviation as one of several sectors of market leadership.

We are an active member of Seamless Air Alliance (SAA), the leading developer of global standards for inflight connectivity (IFC). Ensuring that aviation benefits from 5G NTN is one of SAA’s recent initiatives. We participated in the development of the “3GPP Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) for Aviation Connectivity” whitepaper which discusses new 5G NTN use cases for passenger connectivity and operations as well as cabin and cockpit communication.

Standardization Takes Leadership

“The Seamless Air Alliance represents major inflight connectivity stakeholders and promotes aviation requirements for connectivity solutions including 3GPP 5G and 6G. We are delighted to guide 3GPP with a view of the business and technical needs to enhance the ubiquity and resilience of the next generation of cabin and cockpit connectivity systems.” – Jack Mandala, CEO of the Seamless Air Alliance

The 3GPP initiative is the driving force behind realizing ubiquitous 5G through standardization. SAA recently announced that the Organizational Partners of 3GPP officially granted SAA Market Representation Partner status on 24 April 2024. The status is bestowed when 3GPP deems an organization has the ability to offer market advice to 3GPP and bring into 3GPP a consensus view of market requirements for services, features, and functionality. SAA’s leadership efforts, comprised of our industry partners, are paving the way to defining how 5G NTN services will be utilized within the aviation industry.

A Move Towards Common Hardware and Standard Interfaces

Yet another facet to standardization that will affect aviation is the need for common hardware and standard interfaces to support inflight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC). SAA’s Hosted Platform initiative, which ST Engineering iDirect is also a participant, also released another SAA whitepaper “Open Ecosystem for Aviation Applications: Enhancing Passenger Experiences with a Virtualized Platform.” It describes the core objective of a standardized hosted platform as “to provide easy integration of software-defined functions.”

The satellite industry has been notoriously siloed despite many common technologies. In aviation, where access to the airplanes, the technology’s size, weight and power (SWAP), and certification are just some of the hurdles, the fewer iterations to reinvent the proverbial wheel, the better.

Standardization Makes Sense

“The Hosted Platform initiative will enable the industry to define and build software solutions based on general-purpose, vendor-neutral, virtualized hardware platforms and open interfaces.” – Yves Beaumont, Kontron Avionics Product Line Manager and Chair of the SAA Hosted Platforms Working Group

There are quite a few reasons why standardization makes sense. The hosted platform whitepaper enumerates the benefits within the scope of that initiative, but these also apply to broader aspects of satellite technology and of course telecom:

  • Facilitating interoperability
  • Reducing development time
  • Ensuring scalability and performance
  • Addressing security and compliance needs
  • Providing monitoring and management tools
  • Futureproofing applications

There is an opportunity for the satcom industry to orient itself to telco to achieve potentially a much bigger market share. Convergence of satcom and telco can bring together two historically disparate systems, neither of which comes close to the unique features of the other. But together they are certainly greater than the sum of their parts.

By leveraging standardized, open ecosystems within and across previously siloed domains we will yield a new era in aviation.