Insight | GX+ North America: Connectivity without compromise


GX+ North America: Connectivity without compromise


A strategic collaboration between Inmarsat Aviation and Hughes Network Systems will bring unrivalled inflight connectivity to North American commercial airlines and their passengers.

It’s one of largest and most progressive commercial aviation markets in the world and was the first to fully embrace inflight connectivity. Today, the great majority of North American airlines offer their passengers Wi-Fi in the skies. But despite the head start, or perhaps in part because of it, the region’s carriers continue to face a series of frustrating challenges. Huge demand from increasingly data-hungry passengers has consistently outpaced legacy technologies, leading to impatience and irritation. Inadequate bandwidth has slowed the introduction of connected service innovations and free to passenger access models. Meanwhile those connectivity providers that have focused capacity in an attempt to meet regional requirements have been unable to extend their coverage beyond the continent, forcing carriers to compromise their Wi-Fi services on intercontinental flights.

But now this is all set to change, as Inmarsat has collaborated with Hughes Network Systems, the global leader in broadband satellite networks and services, to launch a transformational aviation connectivity solution, designed specifically to meet the needs of North American commercial airlines, at home and away.

The best of both worlds: regional capacity and global coverage

GX+ North America will offer a unique combination of unprecedented capacity, speed and reliability - quite unlike anything available from other connectivity providers. By seamlessly integrating the unrivalled capacity of the Hughes JUPITER™ High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) fleet over the continental United States, with the extensive worldwide coverage and resilience of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress HTS satellite network, the new solution extends choice in the region while eradicating the need for compromise.

It’s a solution that promises the best of both worlds. For the first time, North American commercial airlines will have access to consistent, reliable, high-speed connectivity across their entire route network without compromising on quality or availability. And that includes flying at full capacity over busy flight routes and congested airport hubs, where peak demand is habitually more than existing systems can support. 

Free is the magic number

Faced with passenger take-up rates of less than 10%, some airlines are asking what can help the inflight connectivity revolution truly take off. Is the simple answer to make it free at the point of service? 

The freedom to stream

For passengers, this means a high-speed, uninterrupted Wi-Fi experience, capable of supporting streaming movies and music, social media and messaging, work and other bandwidth-heavy applications: a service in the sky that’s every bit as good as they’re used to on the ground. For airlines it will undoubtedly mean happier passengers (and an end to frustrations aired publicly on social media), as well as a robust platform to launch innovative connected services, including lucrative ancillary revenue generators like e-shopping, premium content, sponsorship and advertising.

For some North American carriers, it may also mean the potential to introduce free-to-access Wi-Fi for the first time. They can be confident that the bandwidth available is sufficient to satisfy the much higher uptake that a free service implies, while preserving the integrity of service necessary to meet the expectations of sponsors and advertisers.

The single technical solution also provides airlines with far greater flexibility for operational planning, even at short notice, as the same aircraft can connect successfully across every geography.

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Two networks, one seamless experience

Under this flexible new solution, airlines will connect to Hughes’ JUPITER satellite fleet over the continental USA, taking full advantage of JUPITER’s unparalleled Ka-band capacity. Outside the US, the system hands over automatically to Global Xpress, providing seamless global coverage and maintaining service quality wherever aircraft fly, whether to Hawaii, Canada, Bermuda, the Caribbean, across the Gulf of Mexico, to Central and South America, across the Atlantic or even to the most extreme northern latitudes. A single terminal solution and fully integrated ground network, managed end-to-end by Inmarsat, ensure aircraft transfer smoothly, with no interruption to passenger experience.

Integrating the GX and JUPITER networks also brings a considerable advantage in redundancy and network resilience. In the unlikely event that an individual satellite should fail, at any location worldwide, airlines – and their passengers – can rely on the ability to dynamically switch satellites built into the system’s core.

GX+ North America underscores Inmarsat’s strategic vision, looking past the pandemic and into the future needs of commercial airline fleets, as connected technologies become a critical catalyst for profitable recovery and growth. Prototype flights are scheduled to begin later this year with commercial availability, based on airline need, during 2021.

According to Rupert Pearce, CEO of Inmarsat: “GX Aviation has firmly established itself as the reference inflight connectivity solution for today’s demanding passengers and is used by airlines worldwide. We are very confident that this game-changing new collaboration with Hughes, combining their market-leading depth of capacity with Inmarsat’s award-winning passenger connectivity solution uniquely delivers inflight broadband that is consistently superior, regardless of the number of passengers using the service or where they are travelling.”

Paul Gaske, Hughes Executive Vice President and General Manager, North America division, also shared his excitement about the new solution. “We are proud to partner with Inmarsat to launch GX+ North America. This collaboration leverages the full power of the JUPITER System, including the depth of capacity of our Ka-band High-Throughput Satellite fleet, as well as our JUPITER gateways and modems. Combining the Hughes JUPITER System and Inmarsat’s leading inflight connectivity solution, GX+ North America marks a new era for inflight connectivity.”

An outstanding ecosystem of proven technical partners

Onboard the aircraft, GX+ North America will utilise a robust, flat panel antenna developed by Thinkom. Based on proven technology, with millions of flight hours behind it, it has a far lower drag profile than traditional gimballed antennas and four times lower maintenance requirements, reducing the total cost of ownership significantly versus competitive solutions. A single unit, dual aero modem, 4MCU Modman, developed by Kontron, will ensure maximum performance across both networks by intelligently selecting the optimal satellite at any location and time. The solution also incorporates Inmarsat’s existing aero services technology platform, which is in use on hundreds of Inmarsat customer aircraft.

The solution will be installed and integrated by GDC Technics, based in Dallas, who are doing the necessary wiring and certification. As well as partnering with Boeing and Airbus, GDC Technics also works closely with the US Air Force, and has equipped, among other aircraft, Air Force One.

For airlines looking to upgrade from an existing connectivity provider, the transition path is straightforward and cost efficient. The flat panel antenna fits under an existing Boeing tri-band radome, streamlining conversion for aircraft previously fitted with Ku-band equipment and simplifying certification requirements. Initial assessment suggests the upgrade can be completed over a short schedule of overnight work, with the aircraft free to fly by day.

GX’s open architecture also ensures the new solution can interface with airlines’ existing digital experience partners as required, meaning that while system performance is considerably enhanced, carriers’ existing portal capabilities and UX design can be retained.

A solution that’s fit for the future

Looking forward, as the commercial aviation sector returns to growth, North American airlines can be confident that Inmarsat and Hughes will continue to anticipate and respond to their evolving needs. Over the next four years alone, the current combined constellation of seven GX and JUPITER satellites will more than double, to a total of 15 spacecraft.

This unrivalled, fully-funded technology roadmap includes Hughes’ ultra-high capacity JUPITER 3 satellite, due in orbit next year, and Inmarsat’s seven advanced, fully-funded next generation GX satellite payloads (6A, 6B, 7, 8, 9, 10A & 10B), which will enhance capacity and coverage throughout the world, including the Arctic. And given Ka spectrum availability, both companies have the leeway to extend capacity as required during the 2025-2030 timeframe and beyond.

A strong and resilient partner

Taken in the current context, this announcement is also a powerful statement of Inmarsat’s continuing commitment to the aviation sector. As Rupert Pearce concludes, “This strategic collaboration is further evidence of Inmarsat’s strength, resilience and innovation, despite these unprecedented times in our industry. As a number of connectivity providers in North America face financial challenges and airlines are forced to reconsider their choice of supplier, Inmarsat’s offer continues to go from strength to strength.”