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Viasat’s Claudio D’Amico on the changing world of business-jet Wi-Fi

By |2020-01-13T10:46:01-07:00Jan 13, 2020|Categories: Aviation, Podcast|Tags: , , |

As the company continues to add capacity, passengers can expect service in the air to mirror what they’re used to on the ground

In this episode of the Viasat podcast, host Alex Miller talks with Claudio D’Amico about the changes happening in the world of connected aircraft. D’Amico is director of business aviation at Viasat, and in that role he’s focused on smaller jets operated by corporations, fleets and high net-worth individuals.

Claudio D'Amico head shot

Claudio D’Amico

As D’Amico explains, these customers are more demanding, with the expectation that things will “just work.” As a pioneer in connected aviation, Viasat has continually improved its service to better serve how people use the internet. With an expanded Ku-band service and new, higher-frequency Ka-band technology coming online, D’Amico outlines some of the ways the game has changed:

  • Additional satellite capacity now enables passengers to do much more in flight. That includes using basic productivity and communications tools like email and text all the way up to more data-intensive applications like streaming video and working over the corporate VPN.
  • How Viasat Unlimited Streaming allows passengers to do more online without worrying about data limits.
  • Compared to air-to-ground systems where service isn’t active until the aircraft reaches 10,000 feet, Viasat’s satellite-based technology enables true “ramp-to-ramp” connectivity.
  • New technologies coming in the next few years are poised to up the in-flight connectivity experience even more. Those include the company’s ViaSat-3 global constellation, expected to be in place by 2022 with expected enormous gains in capacity and coverage. New types of flat-panel antennas also have the potential to improve the service and make it available to more types of aircraft in the coming years.

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Alex Miller: Hello and welcome to the Viasat podcast. I’m Alex Miller with Corporate Communications aad today, we’re talking with Claudio D’Amico, director of business aviation here at Viasat. So thanks for being on the podcast today, Claudio.
Claudio D’Amico: Thanks, Alex.
Alex Miller: So with aviation, Viasat is primarily focused on providing satellite connectivity to large commercial fleets as well as to the smaller jets owned by both corporations and fleets and high net-worth individuals. So it’s this area that you’re involved with, Claudio. So I wanted to start off by asking what’s different about providing in-flight connectivity for business and private jets versus those commercial fleets?
Claudio D’Amico: The major difference between I think commercial aviation and business aviation can be explained by the whole boarding process. In a business jet, the individual entering the aircraft, they will they will arrive at the airport, in their limo or a private car, and they’re brought onto the aircraft directly. So you don’t have to go through the hassle of security, going through check-in process, which sometimes can be somewhat stressful. They just walk into the aircraft and then they should be ready to roll. Right. And take off. That is a testament of the expectation that some of these passengers have. So they just expect things to work and it’s seamless. There’s obviously no credit card transactions as you enter the aircraft to connect to the internet. So as you enter that aircraft, it is something that is just there and available as a continuity of their connectivity that they have on the ground. So it’s a much higher expectation in terms of performance and reliability that these passengers have on business jets.
Alex Miller: And I imagine the scale is quite a bit different, instead of several large fleets, you’ve got a lot of different smaller operators.
Claudio D’Amico: So we have we both types of operators. So we have operators with individual aircraft. So one aircraft, and it could be a high net worth individual or a corporation with one aircraft. We have some large corporations today that are customers with multiple aircraft and we have large fleet operators that operate multiple aircraft and have fractional programs or are powered by the flight-by-the hour programs in which people can just buy a certain amount of time to utilize that aircraft. So we have multiple types of customers. It really depends on how they’re utilizing this aircraft, this asset, to be able to do their business or as a means of transportation for a high net-worth individual. What we’ve seen is that the majority of our customers today in business aviation, we have roughly about 250-260 customers today in business aviation. We’re expanding that number with our new satellites, but the majority of those are corporate users. So we have several corporations with multiple aircrafts. There are some individuals, high net worth individuals that own their private jets, but the majority of those are corporations.
Alex Miller: So these customers, whether it’s a business jet or a private jet — What are the needs? What are they looking for when it comes to connectivity?
Claudio D’Amico: It depends in terms of a person that uses the aircraft for it for its personal transportation, it is in most cases it’s entertainment. They would like to connect and entertain while they’re flying. In some cases, also, there’s some productivity tools, doing emails or connecting to specific business applications. On the corporate jets, predominantly they are using that time on board to continue their functions that they have on the ground, leveraging our connectivity. So we have folks utilizing VPN to connected or corporate VPNs, doing emails, teleconferences. In some cases on the corporate jets, they also have they may use that time to unwind from a long day in the office, but the majority of the usage there is for productivity tools through the internet.
Alex Miller: So in addition, you mentioned entertainment. Are we able to offer the bandwidth needed to stream video and things like that for these customers?
Claudio D’Amico: Absolutely. So we have today products available and services available that enable some of the entertainment in streaming. So one of the things that we’re trying to do going forward is we’re trying to offer what we call Viasat unlimited streaming, which is the ability for passengers to be able to stream their content with unlimited amounts of data on a monthly basis. It’s important to explain the value of that. Traditionally, business jet service packages are sold in data allowances packages. So you have a certain amount of data that you’re able to utilize per month and each data package has a price associated with it. What we’re trying to do going forward is change that equation and provide one service that enables them to stream without consuming data from their data packages. One of the things we’ve heard. We had customers that had purchased a specific data plan with 30 gigabytes of data per month. Right. But they were using a lot of that data allowance to stream. And then when they were actually needing to utilize the connectivity to perform some of the business functions, they were exceeding their data allowances and creating additional cost to that aircraft operation profile. What we’re trying to do with our unlimited streaming solution is to provide a separate service in which they can stream at their own will and then they will still have their data allowance packages for productivity. So it provides them the flexibility and the security that they won’t have extra costs at the end of the month to operate that aircraft. We’re able to do that with the high-capacity satellites that we’re putting up. So our Ka customers are customers that can leverage this, the solution today.
Alex Miller: So thinking about the equipment on these aircraft, you know, compared to a satellite antenna on a home or business, the size of the antenna on an aircraft is pretty important. So why is that size so critical on jets? And are we moving toward smaller antennas on aircraft? And what will that look like in the future?
Claudio D’Amico: Size of the antenna is if one of the important factors of being able to install our system on some of these business jets. There’s limited space on the aircraft fuselage where you can install an antenna. Today, the terminals that we’re selling are parabolic, 12-inch terminals. And the only location where we’re able to fit those terminals is on the tail boom of the aircraft. So it sits not on top of the fuselage, but it sits on top of the tail. That’s an area that has limited space available for the installation of the antenna. Probably one of the largest terminals that, we would be able to fit in that area unless you change some of the design characteristics of the structure around that antenna, so the radome. So we possibly could go to a larger antenna, maybe even an 18 inch antenna. There’s some of our products out there today, not for business aviation, but that would have an impact on the performance of the aircraft with more drag and fuel consumption. So the whole industry really is moving towards flat panel antennas. One of the things that I think we’ll see in the next three to five years is flat panel antennas being mounted on on the fuselage of the aircraft. And as that evolves, I think some of the business jets will adopt that technology as well. I think that from a commercial viability for four business jets, we’re probably looking in to, you know, three to maybe five years of when we’ll see some of the high end business jets having technology like that.
Alex Miller: And when you talk about flat-panel panel antennas, we’re talking about the phased array antennas that are able to steer, sort of steer toward the beam of the satellite without moving mechanically.
Claudio D’Amico: That’s correct.
Alex Miller: So what are some of the connectivity challenges, and I think you’ve touched on some of them. But those who are operating business jets, what are  they looking for and what are some of the things that, you know, we’ve helped solve?
Claudio D’Amico: One of the I think the most important things that we’re being able they were able to solve now with the high capacity satellite is to enable multiple users onboard to do whatever they please in terms of connecting to the internet. So streaming productivity tools — I’ve been to some business conferences where some of the providers were explaining to passengers and business jet operators how they should manage their connectivity so they could minimize the data consumption. What we are trying to do with the high capacity satellites is really provide the users the ability to work or entertain themselves onboard as they would if they’re on the ground without any limitations. So I think that the big change that we bring is with the high capacity network that we are structuring for Viasat, and business aviation is taking advantage of that, is providing that freedom and flexibility to those aircraft operators and passengers.
Alex Miller: And is part of that the ramp to ramp connectivity?
Claudio D’Amico: Absolutely. So that’s a very good question. There are other systems out there today — so air to ground systems — where they’re not capable of operating below 10000 feet. Right. One of the advantages we bring with the satcom system is we’re able to operate from the ramp. So the moment you walk into that aircraft, you are able to connect to that aircraft Wi-Fi, and you can continue with whatever you’re doing through the internet. Some of the other systems, if it’s air to ground, you know, you’re not able to do that. There’s an interruption there until you reach 10000 feet, which can take quite some time. So it’s a bit of a distraction and an annoyance for those passengers.
Alex Miller: So when you are talking to potential customers about Viasat service, what do you tell them about how we’ve changed that business jet experience?
Claudio D’Amico: So not a lot of people know this, but Viasat with this with its Ku system was the first company to offer broadband connectivity to business jets. So we started this around 2007, 2008 and through our Ku network and partnerships with specific OEMs, predominately Gulfstream, we delivered the first broadband system to those aircraft. Before that, it was all L-band solution based. So SwiftBroadband. And it was really you’re talking about 128 to 256 kilobits. And when we started, we really changed that game and provided much more capacity. At that time, there weren’t as many personal devices out there, so it was really a good experience back then. But as the market evolved with the use of new PED’s, cell phones, bandwidth intensive applications, now that data consumption has increased. So we’re trying to evolve. And our Ka satellites and Ka network has evolved with it. Now we’re actually launching our Ka service on some business jets today and passengers are able to get 60 megabits per second, which enables them to stream, as we discussed, or enables them to connect to social media, which now has a lot of video and that consumes a lot of data. But also now, there’s a requirement for security. Right. Corporate users can connect to their VPN and that consumes data. So now we’re able to do that with the high capacity satellites as well.
Alex Miller: So thinking a little bit to the future, you mentioned the different types of antennas coming up. But we’re also, Viasat is working on a global constellation of high capacity Ka-band satellites that are expected to cover most of the earth in a couple of years. What is that constellation going to mean for those business jet customers?
Claudio D’Amico: It’s going to mean that we’re going to be able to continue to support the increase in data, demand, data and and capacity. So think about video. Right now you have standard definition video. Now, the expectations is for for high def video as you’re watching something on your cell phone or on your computer. Now we’re talking about 4K video. Then high capacity satellites are going to enable folks to continue to utilize and have the same experience that they’re expecting on the ground while they’re onboard the aircraft. I think that’s that’s — from a user experience, that’s one of the important things, is being able to continue to use that technology in whatever they do on the ground, on the air. For our business, specifically as we go global with our Ka network, it enables us to reach more aircraft platforms. So today we have Ka coverage over North America and over Europe that our business jets are able to leverage. So we’re able to sell our systems to those aircrafts that are flying within those regions. So that’s a specific market. And those are the super-mid aircraft. So we have our systems line-fit offerable on some of the Embraer Praetor aircraft and the G280 and we’re working on some other aircrafts in that category. As we go global, it enables us to sell our products with our coverage as we go global with our coverage that enables us to sell our products for aircrafts that have much longer range. So now you’re able to address the high end of the market with our Ka system and high capacity satellites. So that that creates the opportunity for those jets to do that as well — in the future, when the capacity and coverage is available there.
Alex Miller: Okay. Well, it sounds like there’s going to be a — the service is going to be getting better and better as all these things come online. So appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today, Claudio. And maybe we can touch base again in 2020 and see where things are going.
Claudio D’Amico: Thank you for the opportunity, Alex.

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About the Author:

Alex Miller is the editor of the Viasat corporate blog. A veteran newspaper reporter and editor, Alex has been with Viasat since 2012, working out of the company's Denver office.