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Understanding developments that will enhance your airborne connectivity

In-flight telephone and internet access is fast becoming “must have” equipment onboard any business aircraft. Equipping a business jet with satellite communications (satcoms) capability in China has been difficult in the past - but it is going to start to get easier over the next two years.

Satellite-based services can be used in China provided such use is authorised in accordance with Government Regulations. This has been restrictive- but provider companies like Iridium and supplier companies like ARINC and OnAir are working hard to expand or obtain licences for the region. Another provider - Inmarsat - is also working on building a Satellite Access Station (SAS) within the country- which is due to come online in 2012 or 2013.

One avionics manufacturer- AeroMechanical Services- Ltd (doing business under the trade name FLYHT) reports that its system (known as AFIRS/Up-Time) is licensed to use the Iridium satellite for both voice and data communications in China.

Most of the major business jet manufacturers have experience fitting the required equipment in their aircraft. This usually amounts to adding an antenna and a satellite communications terminal on the aircraft- although your specific networking requirements can add to the final bill.

Government regulations

Satellite-based services can be used in China on commercial aircraft- including privately-owned jets- provided such use is authorised in accordance with Government Regulations. These have required that satellite-based services must be provided through Chinese-licensed operators- which has proved somewhat restrictive. Nevertheless- and as mentioned above- western companies like Iridium- ARINC and OnAir are working to extend or earn Chinese licences for the region.

China also requires that all satellite data be subject to a protocol known as “Forced Routing”. Essentially- the Chinese government requires that the data sent and received be passed through a government server for reasons of national security. Forced Routing was implemented by China in May 2009 and covers mainland China including Hong Kong and Macau- but not Taiwan.

Forced Routing will take place at the point at which the data connection is established - so if you were flying over India and started a connection before you flew into Chinese territories it would not Force-Route. But if you were in China and began the data connection there- when you flew out of China's airspace it would continue to Force-Route.

About the western contenders

Inmarsat is one of the world's leading suppliers of aeronautical satcoms- and it does already have a Chinese supplier - Beijing Marine Communications and Navigation Company (MCN). MCN- however- specialises in land and marine-based satcoms equipment and not aeronautical.

In addition Inmarsat has a number of other suppliers in Asia who may be able to help - but these may also pose problems regarding licensing issues for service provision within China specifically. Currently- Iridium’s approved usage in China is limited to FLYHT’s application in conjunction with its Chinese partner Sky Blue.

In terms of products- Inmarsat offers its IP-based 432 kilobytes per second (kbps) SwiftBroadband (SB) and 64kbps Swift64 services- but the launch of its light-weight 200kbps SB200 service- with equipment that can easily be fitted into a business jet- is also proving popular around the world.

Furthermore- it is important to differentiate between equipment that is designed (and approved) for use by the cockpit crew and equipage limited to passenger applications.

The new Satellite Access Station (SAS) that Inmarsat hopes to establish in China will help build an easier route to airborne satcoms in the country- and signs do exist that the Chinese market is softening its stance towards western providers.

OnAir- a major Inmarsat provider- has embarked on a regulatory effort- aiming to secure the necessary authorisations for access to the Chinese market and hopes to be able to report some success in the near future.

A competing provider to Inmarsat is Iridium- although only one avionics manufacturer—AeroMechanical Services- Ltd (doing business as FLYHT)—has a licence through a Chinese business affiliate- Sky Blue- to use the Iridium frequency in China for airborne applications. Others appear to be working towards getting approvals.

While Inmarsat uses a constellation of geostationary satellites- Iridium has a fleet of 66 low-earth orbiting satellites. Iridium’s global service allows aviation users to send and receive voice- messaging and data regardless of their positions on- or above the earth. The company also has satcom equipment available for the business jet market and a further boost is expected to come with the availability of its new NEXT constellation (available from 2015).

Iridium’s main advantage over Inmarsat is cost. An Inmarsat high-gain system will cost $300-000 to $400-000 (or more)- whereas a basic Iridium installation costs between $30-000 and $60-000 per aircraft. The Iridium antenna is smaller- lighter and omni-directional- which can make a big weight saving too.

Essentially- what you should spend on your in-flight satcoms depends on your requirements. If you do not need multiple channels and 200/432kbps download speeds (Iridium will let you download small email files at a lower data-rate of about 2.4kbps)- Iridium could be worth consideration. Iridium is working on an advanced system with a higher transmission rate.

Whatever route you choose- expect the path to airborne connectivity to get easier over the next few years as companies start to receive their licences for operation in China. Satcom is a rapidly expanding field of communications. Operators of aircraft are well advised to keep apace with this important capability.

Read more about: Business Aviation in China | Satellite Communications (satcoms)

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