CesiumAstro Aims To Speed Up Your In-Flight Broadband With Tech From Military Radar

Texas-based satellite antenna-maker CesiumAstro is offering its flat-panel phased array antenna and software-defined radio combo to air transport manufacturers, betting that in-cabin broadband will be a must-have for airlines.

On Monday, the company announced its entry into the in-flight connectivity (IFC) market, unveiling its multi-beam active phased array for airborne satellite communications applications. Cesium asserts that its IFC system is the first multi-beam phased array which can support multiple Ka-band constellations for airborne commercial and defense markets, delivering space-based broadband to both.

The IFC system, which will be manufactured end-to-end by CesiumAstro, is scheduled to begin flight demonstrations on an Airbus helicopter later this year. The demos will show off its connectivity, in particular its ability to connect to multiple satellites and orbits at one time, enabling make-before-break handoff “and other key features that enhance overall quality of [in-flight broadband] service”, the company says.

Linking aircraft to satellites essentially completes a loop for Cesium which says it is already selling its arrays to satellite operators which it has yet to disclose. The company’s Active Electronically Steered Arrays build on the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA, also referred to as “phased array”) technology developed for military aircraft and ship radars in the late 1980s.

Adapting AESA technology to space-based communications brings with it advantages including compact size (as opposed to the mechanical antennas now used) suited to smaller low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, constellations of which are rapidly proliferating.

Flying much lower than the geosynchronous-orbit (GEO) satellites which currently provide high bandwidth communications, AESA-equipped LEO satellites can send their signals to the ground or the air across a far shorter distance, greatly reducing latency (the delay between uplink and downlink), facilitating the kind of internet service (streaming video, games, dense telematics) terrestrial broadband consumers have become accustomed to.

When paired with a software-defined radio as Cesium does, AESA’s ability to scan, send and receive on multiple frequencies at once could allow networks of equipped satellites to provide seamless high bandwidth coverage to static and mobile platforms around the world.

The tech offers similar advantages to atmospheric mobile platforms (airplanes, ships, ground vehicles) and pairing on-the-move phased array terminals with their space-based counterparts yields an obvious virtuous circle for Cesium. Shey Sabripour, founder and CEO of CesiumAstro, says his firm is simply commercializing advanced phased array technology “for anything that’s mobile — satellites, aircraft, drones, cars, autonomous vehicles.”

That includes the in-cabin airline broadband market. “When you look at that market,” Sabripour says, “you have to provide the other end as well. If you have a phased array in orbit, you have to put [phased arrays] on aircraft, drones etc. We have the technology and we want to get into the other end as well.”

Ultimately, Sabripour sees CesiumAstro deriving 50 percent of its revenue from space, 30 percent from airborne platforms, and 20 percent from ground vehicles/equipment.

Airline Wi-Fi has been available for almost 20 years but a scan of its current state, suggests that Cesium’s airborne revenue target is achievable, for a decade at least.

Wi-Fi In The Cabin

A 2021 survey of airlines, service providers and equipment manufacturers, by satellite communications provider, Intelsat
, showed that 65% of respondents anticipated increases in the number of passengers who expect to be connected while flying. The two biggest impediments to increasing inflight Wi-Fi adoption, the survey indicated, were the high price of the service and “poor internet connection.”

The complaints stem from the way airline internet service currently works. In basic terms, there are two types of systems for airplane Wi-Fi; air-to-ground (ATG) which bounces signals off ground-based cell towers, and satellite Wi-Fi which uses signals from satellites orbiting the earth.

ATG relies on antennas on the underside of an airplane’s fuselage, positioned to receive and transmit signals to-from ground-based cell towers. The signals are transceived and bandwidth distributed within the airliner cabin by a modem. As a flight progresses, the ATG system picks up signals from one cell tower to the next.

However, the lack of cell towers in remote areas or over large expanses of water like oceans means signals are often unavailable and the internet you’re looking at in your seat freezes up. ATG connections are also slow, around 5 megabytes per-second (Mbps), okay for checking emails or using messaging apps, but not practical for high-bandwidth activity like uploading files or streaming video.

With satellite-based Wi-Fi, ground stations transmit signals to a satellite, typically in GEO orbit, which then relays the signal to the airliner which receives them through an antenna mounted atop the fuselage.

Coverage is better but latency is an issue thanks to the long distances signals must travel. Ka-Band IFC systems provide the quickest high-speed satellite Wi-Fi, up to 80 Mbps. But since there are significantly fewer Ka-Band satellites in orbit with a smaller geographical coverage, there are big dead spots.

Despite its limitations, airline Wi-Fi is in demand. Last year, Delta and United told CNN Business that each hosts more than 1.5 million inflight WiFi sessions a month. JetBlue, which has made in-flight Wi-Fi a free service, reported that “millions of customers” use it every year. Other airlines report similar demand though in-cabin use is still not ubiquitous. Price is part of the issue.

While most airlines allow free access through messaging apps (Facebook, iMessage, WhatsApp), more intensive internet use requires advance per-device monthly subscriptions, or onboard session purchases by the hour or for the duration of a flight. Prices range from about $50/month for the former to as little as $7 an hour to $15-$20 flight-duration passes.

Not all aircraft offer high-bandwidth Wi-Fi however with narrow-body airliners often limited to slower Ku-Band service. Several satellite networks offer IFC including GoGo, Viasat, Inmarsat, Starlink and Panasonic.

As CesiumAstro and other competitors like SpaceX’s Starlink make AESA flat-panel antennas/terminals available to Boeing
, Airbus, Embraer etc., that could change and with it, increase the use of airborne internet by the flying public.

It’s difficult to pin down what the total cost of phased array-enabled IFC to the airlines will be given that transceiver hardware/software makers like CesiumAstro sell to aircraft manufacturers (who build it into their airliner prices). Constellation operators like Viasat charge the airlines to provide satellite access separately.

Cesium did not share pricing information for its system. But with a foot in both camps, Starlink provides some insight. According to the company’s website, its forthcoming phased array/LEO sat-enabled high-speed, low-latency, in-flight internet system includes a one-time hardware cost of $150,000 per airplane (including AESA antenna, software-defined radio/modem) plus $12,500 to $25,000 per-month fees for network access (whether these are per-airplane isn’t clear).

Obviously, in-flight broadband will be a considerable investment for the airlines. The signs are, they’ll take it on and pass some of the cost to consumers says industry analyst Ernie Arvai of AirInsight Group.

“It’s always been a ‘me too’ industry so if one of the big boys [offers higher bandwidth Wi-Fi] the rest will follow along.”

The same holds for making IFC free. As mentioned, JetBlue has already set the “free Wi-Fi” precedent and Delta and Hawaiian Airlines have indicated they may soon follow suit. As fellow Forbes contributor and industry observer Ted Reed says, big carriers move all the carriers.

“Delta has said it will provide free internet so that is one more area where Delta makes the rules and everyone else follows.”

That said, the cost of moving to new broadband IFC will have to be borne by someone. Ervai opines that airline profit on in-cabin internet is “not as much you’d think”. If the airlines pivot to offering “free” service, they may not see much return in the way of attracting new ticket buyers.

“I don’t think [broadband IFC] a differentiating factor,” Ervai says. “I’ve never known anyone to pick a flight based on Wi-Fi. The whole Wi-Fi thing is becoming a non-event,” he adds, “That’s the world we live in.”

The world we live has shown us that the costs for new services always get passed on to the consumer so it’s logical to expect that future broadband internet will add a few cents to a dollar to the price of every ticket. Regardless, the seeming inevitability of the move to full broadband IFC surely works in CesiumAstro’s favor.

Out In Front

CesiumAstro is not a “household brand name” Ervai observes. “I think Cesium has some interesting technology but few people, even in the industry, know about them at this point.”

That’s not a concern for the company’s founder who asserts, “We’re ahead of everybody else in terms of providing multi-constellation, seamless-connectivity, multi-beam active phased array from one aperture to LEO, MEO and GEO.”

Sabripour says Cesium is hoping to have FAA certification of its system by the first-quarter of 2025. He doesn’t know of any other company that has the same timeline. By mid-decade, the expansion of LEO satellite networks that CesiumAstro’s technology can access should reinforce its desirability.

“That’s why [manufacturers] are asking to fit their new aircraft with flat phased array antennas in the 2026-2027 timeframe and then move on to retrofit their fleets,” Sabripour says. Cesium estimates the total market for its antennas/radios (commercial and business aircraft) is approximately 35,000 aircraft. Sabripour thinks they can capture 25-30% of that market over next ten years, making for production and sales of perhaps 500-1,000 terminals a year.

If the projections pan out, they’ll reflect impressive acceleration for a startup established in 2017. Since its founding, CesiumAstro has raised $90 million in funding from investors including Airbus Ventures (a separate entity from the aircraft OEM), L3Harris Technologies, and Kleiner Perkins among others.

With its headquarters and a prototype manufacturing facility in Austin and offices in Colorado, Los Angeles and the UK, the company has already grown to a staff of 130. The contracts it expects to shortly secure for satellite installations of its system and future contracts with airframers will see it expand into a full-fledged hardware manufacturer by the mid-2020s with additional manufacturing operations in Austin and Broomfield, CO.

Growing beyond a technology development business was always part of the plan for Sabripour who affirms, “We never intended to be just a design and technology company. I built the company so that we can sell hardware and software.”

The stage looks set for CesiumAstro to do just that with one possible wrinkle. Though it may be five to 10 years away, the developing direct-to-device (D2D) mobile satellite services space represents potential mid-to-long term competition for CesiumAstro, adding to the competition it already faces from other phased array developers/providers including Starlink.

Connecting cellphone handsets directly to high-bandwidth GEO and LEO satellite constellations – essentially turning every mobile phone into a satphone – is an effort now gaining steam. Early this month, Viasat announced it is teaming with Ligado Networks to offer high bandwidth D2D via Ligado’s SkyTerra GEO satellite network and IoT terminal-maker, Skylo’s Hub.

Cellphones with satellite capability could theoretically bypass in-cabin Wi-Fi, linking directly with LEO/GEO networks rather than up/downloading data from a cabin modem connected to a fuselage-mounted AESA antenna. Such a scenario would obviate the need for Cesium’s commercial IFC.

But Shey Sabripour contends that such a scheme won’t work. “High frequency Ka-band and Ku-band will not penetrate the aircraft body. They’re going to have to connect to a device like ours.”

I checked with Boeing to see if its engineers agreed. So far, they’ve yet to respond and CesiumAstro’s CEO adds that he “firmly believes” that aircraft manufacturers “won’t gamble” on D2D connectivity.

Even if D2D is currently a dark horse, Cesium’s prospects appear promising. In addition to bringing broadband to the cabin, the possibility exists that airlines will want the company’s phased array terminals to pipe it into the flight deck for applications from real-time weather information to in-depth maintenance telematics and airline management streams.

Interestingly, Sabripour says the OEMs have yet to ask about the potential flight-deck connectivity of his company’s system. They may be sitting on their hands to let next-gen IFC play out a bit further or their silence may be driven by other concerns like the highly serious threats of malfeasant cyber and electromagnetic exploits that come with data-rich connectivity.

In the meantime, CesiumAstro is also cultivating the government/military market. It was recently awarded a DoD Space Development Agency (SDA) contract to develop a Link-16 compatible multi-beam L-band AESA antenna ahead of the agency’s migration to the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture global satellite network, a LEO-based constellation built to enable key DoD space capabilities.

CesiumAstro points out that its antenna/radio combination is scalable, fitting big or smaller aircraft. Its modular architecture and software-defined back end abet flexibility and the company asserts that its system will enter the market at a price point two-times lower than the existing IFC satcom terminals while increasing data rates by a factor of 100 over current systems today.

Combining high speed in-flight Wi-Fi business with other opportunities in the government sector (airborne and space-based), the company could build considerable momentum in the next three years. By then, we’ll know more about whether its “scan” of the commercial airline connectivity market turned up a major opportunity.


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