Satellite Comms Market: What’s the Latest?

Satellite communications is a fast-evolving sector within Business Aviation. Matt Harris caught up with Satcom Direct’s Chris Moore to discuss the latest developments and ask him about his predictions for the market...

Matt Harris  |  14th March 2022
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Matt Harris
Matt Harris

Matt Harris is Commissioning Editor for AvBuyer. He is an experienced General and Business Aviation...

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Businesspeople at work on a private jet using satellite connectivity

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Satcom Direct is founded on an understanding of ‘the value of time, and the importance of maximizing it’. In accordance with that founding principle, the company has developed a range of cutting-edge technologies that enable connection, wherever a business aircraft is located. 

Today, it provides communications solutions aboard more than 7,000 aircraft. 

Harnessing a powerful combination of tools, Satcom Direct is industry-renowned for its consistent, reliable connectivity across the globe. A portfolio of proprietary software, hardware, terrestrial infrastructure, cybersecurity solutions, and award-winning customer services enable the company to offer tailored data services for each individual business aircraft customer’s mission. 

In addition, the company delivers educational resources that range from simple entry-into-service workshops, right up to certified qualifications for aviation IT professionals and cabin crew. 

According to Chris Moore, President of Satcom Direct, “The aim is to enhance the passenger experience, improve operational efficiencies, and give back precious time by providing connectivity solutions beyond all expectations.” 

An experienced, dynamic, board executive with an engaging personality, Chris Moore (pictured below left) has contributed to the success of various renowned satellite, software, and aerospace organizations, by recognizing and maximizing commercial opportunities and applying strategic know how to optimize positive outcomes. 

With 18 years’ experience in the global telecommunications and IT business space, his career began in product management for Westcon, and, more recently, he served as Vice President of Sales at Horizon Mobile, as Vice President of Sales for Trading Apps, and Global Sales Director of Inmarsat for the aeronautical, maritime, land and government markets. 

Chris has been with Satcom Direct since 2012, having originally joined as Vice President of Satcom Direct International. He enjoyed significant success in expanding the global footprint leading to a move to Satcom Direct’s World Headquarters in Florida in 2016, and promotion as the company’s President. 

AvBuyer caught up with Chris Moore to get his, and Satcom Direct’s, perspectives on the Business Aviation satellite communications market today…

AvBuyer: With all of the incredible developments in cabin connectivity over the past decade, what is demand like from business jet users currently? Does it continue to increase, has it plateaued, or is it trailing off? 

CM: Demand for connectivity for the business jet sector continues to grow at a rapid pace and has increased exponentially in the last few years. Customers expect the same connectivity experience at 40,000 feet as they have in their office or home, and with many more data-hungry apps being used, the data transmission rates are soaring.

With Covid driving increased use of business jets, and as more passengers are travelling, so the demand for data, and the applications it supports, is increasing. An aircraft will often transform from an office to a home environment, so will require connectivity that reliably and consistently supports work and leisure time.

In addition, aircraft are becoming digital platforms that are active from the moment they leave the OEM production line, so creating a digital heritage of the aircraft performance from its origin. The accuracy of this information supports asset value retention as it drives more efficient operations, more effective maintenance, and to-the-minute aircraft cycle times. 

Data is becoming the heart of aviation, and the ability to aggregate, collate, analyse, and interpret it will change the aviation landscape for the better. We anticipate that this appetite for data consumption will continue to grow. 

Though traditionally connectivity has been the domain of the Large Jets, we predict all sizes of aircraft will eventually require data connectivity. Over the next two years we expect greater demand from the smaller jet segments for the same levels of connectivity – and that is a significant market which is currently limited in its connectivity options. 

AvBuyer:Tell us about some of the exciting developments in Satellite Communications relating to Business Aviation, as you see it. How will these change things for users of private aircraft going forwards?

CM: First, there’s third-party integration. Business Aviation is a highly regulated sector with industry standards defining operations. However, standards for connectivity are still in development. Yet we are seeing a convergence of products as the silos that once segregated products and services are being broken down.

Connectivity is about so much more than just communications, and we anticipate that the ability to simplify third-party integration into flight operations systems will add significant value to the Business Aviation supply chain. 

Enabling access to, and synchronising information for, all members of a flight department operation will become more enhanced as decisions are made using accurate information.

This may be in the form of a pilot using risk assessment software to plan a flight, and making modifications to flight plans as a result of the real-time data provided. It could involve the integration of a financial module that supports better budgeting and spend management. Or it could be as simple as automatically filling out accurate-to-the-minute pre- and post-flight logs. 

This simplifies and enhances all areas of the flight operation, improves safety, and supports asset value retention. We will definitely see more integration and removing of silos between company departments during the next five years.

Second, as more satellite networks come online and the technology continues to advance, data transmission speeds will continue to increase. This is always high on the demand list, and will eventually support IoT (Internet of Things) functionality. 

Satellite constellations are being updated, with new satellites being launched into LEO, MEO and GEO orbits. This will have the dual effect of providing more bandwidth for more aircraft, and eventually reducing the black spots that currently exist, ensuring more consistent connectivity globally.

Third is new hardware. For example, the SD Plane Simple Antenna systems represent a giant step forward in providing connectivity to more aircraft types around the world, and we anticipate that there will be further developments in the hardware and software sectors. As we know, aviation is highly regulated. Every time a new piece of equipment is introduced to the market it needs to be certified.

Looking to the future, we expect the upgrade path not to be hardware-dependent, but instead software-led, as the satellites enable upgrades through software. We’re very excited about the connectivity this will deliver to a much broader segment of the Business Aviation sector. A simple software upgrade will make life so much easier, reducing installation costs for the end-users. 

And fourth, artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine-reading technology will enrich the value of data, as collected data is optimized using machine learning and AI algorithms to deliver vital information to crew, maintenance teams, and flight departments to further streamline flight operations.

AvBuyer: It’s difficult to ignore the arrival of 5G later in 2022. Offering higher data speeds and lower latency, how can private jet owners provision their aircraft to start receiving the benefits of 5G? Is this likely to require significant cost and downtime when MRO shops are already in heavy demand? 

CM: 5G is an interesting subject, as there is clearly concern about how it will work with aviation. There’s no question that 5G is going to be massively beneficial to terrestrial connectivity as it will enable greater speeds per device, and will support the massive growth of IoT devices.

Cellular connectivity has always been a key component of aircraft connectivity, and we do not see that changing. Though we’re seeing an increase in the adoption of satellite connectivity, we’re also seeing an increase in how that connectivity is being utilized. 

The cellular connection will be valuable for continuing to manage data on and off the aircraft while it’s on the ground. That said, it’s unlikely that we’ll see an influx of products specifically geared around 5G. 

At Satcom Direct, we’re looking at options for upgrading the cellular radios within our router product lines to see if we can incorporate 5G capabilities without needing additional LRUs to be installed.

AvBuyer: It seems there are still some questions and concerns about 5G and aviation – i.e. the potential for 5G to interfere with some systems aboard the aircraft. How real would you say these are? 

CM: It’s important that all of these are properly vetted to ensure that safety of flight is never compromised. There’s nothing more important than the safe carriage of an aircraft’s passengers and crew. While we think there will ultimately be a solution that allows 5G service to operate safely on Business Aviation aircraft, we support the need to fully test for any potential impacts.

Our expectation is that our next generation hardware will include 5G service, but for now we’re closely monitoring the situation. 

AvBuyer:  Ultimately, how do you see demand for 5G equipage playing out among Business Aviation users this year, and over the short- to mid-term?

CM: That’s very regionally-dependent. If the on-board satcom system is fulfilling the needs of the passengers and crew, and is available gate-to-gate, then the need for 5G is reduced. In that situation, the cellular system will likely be used more for operational and maintenance purposes, where the increased capabilities of 5G are less critical. 

Yet, in many parts of the world, that scenario is not always an option. If the satellite coverage is limited, or if the regulators do not allow for ground operations of the satcom, then 5G may be critical in meeting the ever-increasing demands of the aircraft connectivity.

In the mid- to long-term, however, even the operational needs of the aircraft are going to increase as we strive to provide more data to ground systems, and 5G will become a necessary component of the aircraft. 

AvBuyer: Another vital element of cabin connectivity in Business Aviation concerns cybersecurity. Is this an area you believe is still misunderstood by private jet owners and operators today? 

CM: With the increased amount of data being transmitted, and the growing digitization of Business Aviation, it is really just a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’, an aircraft experiences some form of cyber-event. There is definitely a clear and present danger. 

Awareness within Business Aviation is improving, but with more entrants coming into the market since the start of the pandemic the need to highlight the importance of cyber resilience is still very much on the agenda. 

Satcom Direct has promoted the need for cybersecurity for many years, offering a suite of cybersecurity services, from simply conducting site assessments and making recommendations to a flight department, through to advanced encryption which effectively cloaks the aircraft with its own Virtual Private Network, and at the highest level transmitting data through our own infrastructure which routes encrypted data to and from the aircraft without ever touching the public internet. This enables the application of corporate cyber protocols. 

Protecting in-flight data requires an understanding of the dynamic nature of the cybersecurity landscape, and necessitates visibility into flight operations. This needs to be coupled with the right technologies, policies, procedures, and controls to implement solid security management systems. 

Operators need to discuss all these elements with their connectivity provider to reduce risk. The in-flight connectivity must be paired with a robust, secure ground infrastructure that can support secure connectivity solutions. 

The industry is definitely more aware than it was, but we will continue to work with our customers, and encourage the associations to work with their members to support cyber-resilience. It is not something that can, or should, be ignored.

AvBuyer: Given the ever-changing threat from hackers, how can owners and operators of business aircraft stay on top of their own cybersecurity efforts? 

CM: Since cybersecurity is always evolving, flight departments need to remain ever vigilant. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You could have the best firewalls in place, but all it takes is for someone to click a link and bypass any security protocols you have in place. 

Annual training, cyber assessments and audits are the only way to stay ahead of the curve. This is why Satcom Direct has created a cyber course geared towards flight operations, based on the challenges we’ve seen. While we are constantly investing in hardware and software improvements, training remains paramount. 

AvBuyer:  Finally, Satcom Direct offers a wide range of services and solutions to ensure business aircraft owners and operators have the level of connectivity they need. What are you most excited about as a company for 2022? 

CM: As we mark our 25th year in business, we’re thrilled to have qualified the first antenna in our Plane Simple Antenna series this January. Our aim with this antenna system is to provide the industry with a single resource for all Business Aviation connectivity needs; reduce the complexity of the connectivity acquisition process; and future-proof the connectivity investment. 

In a nutshell, we are making the connectivity process ‘Plane Simple’.

The entry into service of the first of these antennas represents a major milestone for Satcom Direct, bringing all our services together in a modular way to support future-proofing the full potential of airframe connectivity. 

The Plane Simple terminal consists of just two LRUs – the antenna and an SD modem which sits in the unpressurized part of the fuselage. 

This enables minimally invasive installation, which in turn leads to a seamless upgrade path as the customer requires change. 

Our first terminal is compatible with the multi-layered Intelsat FlexExec Ku-band service, which supports the creation of flexible, high-performance plans to provide more aircraft owners and operators with improved access to broadband connectivity designed to meet their specific operational needs. 

This game-changing approach supports asset value retention with its ability to be adapted to mission needs. 

This first-of-a-kind terminal is designed specifically for Business Aviation – it has not been repurposed from existing technology. It’s smaller than most antennas, and any aircraft with a tail that can support the 12-inch antenna will benefit from high-speed data transmission when equipped. 

While we saw a more immediate gap in the Ku-band tail-mount terminal market, and our initial focus is working with the Intelsat FlexExec Ku-band network to ensure consistent reliable data all around the globe for our clients, there are common building blocks which protect the aircraft owner’s investment when it comes to connectivity upgrade pathways. 

It is also band-agnostic, so can transition between Ka- and Ku-band with simple modification. 

We believe the introduction of these premier connectivity services, delivered by cutting-edge technology solutions, is ground-breaking for the industry. The investment in the hardware series satisfies the broadening Business Aviation sector’s appetite for flexible, reliable, high-value connectivity solutions. We are very excited about the potential it’s bringing to the market. 

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