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Staying Connected

When a businessperson seeking market opportunities in remote regions of the world needs to communicate with associates and colleagues- today’s technology for business aircraft enables passengers to realize their expectations.

Jack Olcott   |   1st May 2012
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Jack Olcott Jack Olcott

Possibly the world’s most recognized advocate, if not expert on the value of Business Aviation,...
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Whether a businessperson seeking market opportunities in remote regions of the world needs to communicate with associates and colleagues- or an individual with the imagination and resources to be a world traveler wants to stay in touch with family and friends- today’s technology for business aircraft enables passengers to realize their expectations.

Imagine having the same ability to use phone- email- internet and possibly video on demand in your business aircraft flying high above the Indian Ocean en-route to Africa that you expect in your office or home in Singapore- for example. Such connectivity is possible today. With a few reasonable limitations and at higher costs- and with the appropriate equipment installed and a contract with a provider of network services- passengers utilizing Business Aviation can stay connected to the world below.

How such high-tech communication systems work is not the passenger’s concern. Answers to the following four questions- however- are important:

1. What does the installed connectivity system do? Is it:
a. Voice-only
b. Internet-only
c. Voice plus Internet

2. What is the network’s area of coverage and what is the impact of other users (e.g. ground and oceanic entities) sharing the frequency spectrum (i.e.- an issue called “contention”)?
a. Truly global (including Polar regions)
b. Global (excluding Polar regions)
c. Over land- or sparsely populated areas
d. Altitude limitations (not a significant issue for most systems currently relevant to global travelers)

3. How does the airborne system function for the passenger?
a. Similar to Hotspot applications (e.g.- found in hotels)
b. Similar to dial-up applications
c. Similar to home or office connections

4. What applications are expected by the passenger- and available in practice? a. Full Internet
b. Light Internet
c. E-mail
d. Fax
e. Simple spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentations f. Large file transfer
g. Videos

Similarities and Differences
Airborne and ground systems for transmitting voice and data may seem similar- but they have differences that mainly concern physical design as well as speed of data transfer- cost of service and areas of coverage.

Ground systems often are connected by wires- whereas airborne systems obviously must be wireless. Except for Aircell’s Gogo Biz- which employs a network of ground stations (at present only within the USA and accessible only when an equipped aircraft is over 10-000 feet in altitude)- business aircraft have embraced systems that are fully satellite-dependent.

For the foreseeable future- it seems that users throughout the Middle East- India and Southeast Asia will embrace satellite-only architectures for cabin connectivity in business aircraft. The three satellite infrastructures used for airborne connectivity on business aircraft are fundamentally different- however:

• Iridium employs a constellation of 66 satellites that surround the entire globe and orbit at the relatively low height of approximately 485 miles.
• Inmarsat- meanwhile- owns satellites positioned in very high geostationary earth-orbits (about 22-000 miles aloft) and supports several services: Swift 64- SwiftBroadband SB200 (a smaller- lighter system than previously available)- voice communication- and air traffic safety services for cockpit crews.
• ViaSat offers its Yonder system to provide Ku-Band connectivity- which is capable of high-speed data flow (high bandwidth) on the same communication satellites (also in geostationary orbit) that deliver TV services.

Manufacturers offer various combinations of these as options to fit on new aircraft. Because of weight and size constraints as well as satellite considerations- however- systems for business aircraft likely to be operated globally provide somewhat lower performance than is available with typical office or home applications that employ cable connections. Ku-Band systems come quite close- however.

Actual connectivity observed-performance verses optimum- or advertised-performance can be misleading. Dedicated connectivity (as opposed to sharing bandwidth capability with other user groups—thereby minimizing the “Contention” issue) increases performance for the user- but the cost will increase too. In practice- however- cabin connectivity for passengers on business aircraft is able to create a true “office-in-the sky” environment.

Effective Communications

Connectivity systems employing Iridium offer truly global coverage (South Pole to North Pole included)- and the power needed to send a signal to the satellite constellation is relatively low. Therefore equipment weight- antenna size and cost of operation are lower than systems employing stationary satellites positioned thousands of miles above the earth.

Iridium- however- at the present time is unable to flow large amounts of data per second- thus it is often used for voice communications and faxing but has limited use for other passenger applications (its speed of data transfer is about one-tenth to one-twentieth the speed of dial-up service using your office phone). Planned improvements known as Iridium Next are expected to increase Iridium’s 2.4 kilobits per second bandwidth (speed) by as much as a factor of 40.

Depending on the system and type of antenna mounted on the aircraft- Inmarsat’s high-flying stationary satellites can flow data considerably faster than the current products using Iridium.

Because of its greater bandwidth (up to 432 kilobits per second)- Inmarsat-based SwiftBroadband is suitable for traditional email- light Internet- corporate VPN and supporting virtually any Wi-Fi device (BlackBerry- iPhone- laptop- etc). Service bandwidth can be further enhanced by “joining” up to four channels to get a connection of around 1.6 Megabits per second with SwiftBroadband as long as the business aircraft is fitted with the necessary equipment. Effective management of spot beams and satellite transponder resources by Inmarsat allows better connectivity and capabilities for the passenger. However- joining systems also increases costs by the same ratio as bandwidth is increased.

The slower Swift 64 has a bandwidth of 64 kilobits per second - which is close to- but somewhat slower than traditional dial-up internet connections. Four Swift 64 systems can be configured together to provide a passenger with the equal of 256 kilobits per second. However- it is less expensive to employ the newer SwiftBroadband to gain bandwidth.

In theory- the fastest and most capable systems for business aircraft employ ViaSat’s Yonder Ku-Band infrastructure- which is capable of providing full Internet access- Web surfing- e-mail with attachments- corporate VPN- video- Voice over Internet Protocol and video-conferencing. Virtually any Wi-Fi device is available when a business aircraft is equipped with a Ku-Band system- and users of this technology report connectivity experiences similar to those available in an office or home environment.

The issues for Ku-Band users are coverage- contention of users on the shared bandwidth- and cost. Coverage of systems using satellites in stationary orbits high above the earth extends to within between 15 to 10 degrees from each Pole. Thus when flights over (or near) the North or South Pole are anticipated- Iridium systems must be employed.

Get Connected

Several avionics manufacturers provide connectivity equipment that employ either the Iridium or Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite networks. Access is via service providers such as Aircell (Broomfield- Colorado- USA); ARINC Direct (Annapolis- Maryland- USA); Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids- Iowa- USA); SatcomDirect (in conjunction with Jeppesen- located in Satellite Beach- Florida- USA); Thrane&Thrane (Lyngby- Denmark); TrueNorth Avionics (Ottawa- Ontario- Canada); ViaSat- Inc. (Carlsbad- California- USA)- and more.

Your aviation management company- flight department manager and company IT specialists can assist you with selecting hardware and service provider. Advances in connectivity have made business aircraft efficient- highly secure and effective “Offices-in-the Sky.” You need only establish what you require- accept that airborne systems are evolving- and enjoy being in contact with the world.

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