Ka. Ku. K-what? Understanding the Alphabet Soup of Satellite Connectivity

satellite connectivity

No longer a “nice to have,” connecting passengers inflight has become a must for business aviation operators. New solutions let passengers do everything in the air that they can do on the ground. And while it’s critical for customers, many operators are confused about the different options for satellite connectivity and what’s the best choice for their passengers.

Connected Aviation Today spoke to Aditya Chatterjee, Senior Vice President, Aero Market Segment Solutions of SES Networks, to find out more about the difference between Ka and Ku-band satellites and what it means for business.

satellite connectivity
Aditya Chatterjee, Senior Vice President, Aero Market Segment Solutions of SES Networks

Connected Aviation Today (CAT) Editors: Choices for fast broadband connectivity are increasing in the market, making it confusing to narrow down the right solution for the aircraft. Can you explain what the difference is between a Ka-band network vs. a Ku-band network and what’s the best solution for a business jet operator?

Aditya Chatterjee (AC): Technically speaking, Ka-band vs. Ku-band refers to the frequency band in which the satellite operates; Ku-band utilizes the 11-14 GHz range, while Ka-band services use the 17-31 GHz segment of the spectrum.

When evaluating a business jet connectivity service, the primary consideration should be which frequency band is able to deliver the coverage and capacity required for a specific region or route. Today, there are more Ku-band satellites than Ka-band, particularly over major cities with high aircraft concentration, which ensures the redundancy and capacity required to meet the bandwidth demands of business aviation passengers.

Rather than focusing on Ku or Ka-band, business aviation operators should work with their service provider to ensure that the flow between their aircraft and the satellite network is seamless and provides uninterrupted access to high-throughput broadband applications.

CAT Editors: What is the difference between narrow beam and wide beam satellite coverage? Is this important for coverage? 

AC: Wide beam coverage is exactly what it sounds like – satellites that provide larger geographic coverage per beam, making them well-suited for broader coverage in less dense areas. High-throughput satellites (HTS), on the other hand, rely on spot (or narrow) beams and frequency reuse to deliver up to 20 times greater data throughput, as compared to wide beam coverage. Higher capacity and faster data rates make HTS a solid option for delivering data-heavy enterprise and consumer broadband applications.

CAT Editors: What are some challenges that satellite networks have had to overcome to operate in some regions, for example in China or the Middle East?

AC: There are certain markets that present challenging access requirements and favor local operators over foreign satellite providers. In these types of markets, SES works with its customers and local service providers to address these challenges and meet their business objectives.

CAT Editors: What do you see as the biggest challenge for satellite providers to deliver speeds to the aviation industry that matches those on the ground?

AC: Passenger expectations for in-flight connectivity have risen over the last several years; flyers now want the same level of connectivity in the air as they have on the ground, with access to all of their applications and services. However, a growing number of those services require data rates that traditional wide beam satellites are unable to provide – streaming video or cloud-based file transfers, for example – and as more and more passengers bring more and more devices on board, the capacity of traditional satellites is being pushed to the limit. High-throughput satellites are breaking down that barrier, enabling satellite operators such as SES to deliver the connectivity that the next generation of applications and services requires.

CAT Editors: Ku-band has a history of being slow with limited global coverage. How is SES’s Ku-band network different? How are you able to deliver the speeds in the U.S. of 25Mbps?

AC: In our case, SES’s high-throughput satellites are the newest and most modern in the market, with the most available HTS capacity over CONUS and from the U.S. West Coast to Hawaii. This enables us to support all bandwidth-intensive applications, including streaming ultra-HD video, regardless of how many devices are in use on any given aircraft.