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It is becoming easier to get satellite connectivity on a business jet - and over the next few years upload/ download speeds are going to get much faster- thanks to the introduction of Ka-band satellites. But what are the options available right now for the aircraft cabin- and what can you expect today?

AvBuyer   |   1st November 2011
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In-flight connectivity for your business jet

It is becoming easier to get satellite connectivity on a business jet - and over the next few years upload/ download speeds are going to get much faster- thanks to the introduction of Ka-band satellites. But what are the options available right now for the aircraft cabin- and what can you expect today?

Internet and telephone connectivity on a business aircraft is fast becoming a necessity. Passengers can no longer afford to be out of contact for hours on end while they travel on business trips. Luckily there are a number of solutions available that can bring telephony- email- internet and more to the cabin.

The range of communications options possible with these systems is now on a par with those available at airport hotspots and hotels. That is- don’t expect blisteringly-fast broadband internet speeds. You can- however- expect connections fast enough to view web pages- and do some video streaming/video conferencing - but if you want to watch a film you are better off using a DVD player.

Having said that- your phone and laptop will be using a satellite connection that is trusted and approved for safety services and will be maintained without interruption when crossing different coverage zones - and these will also work in heavy weather- at any altitude and during approach- take off or landing.

All of the major manufacturers have experience with fitting the required equipment- which usually amounts to adding an antenna and a satellite communications terminal to the fuselage of your aircraft - although your exact networking requirements can add to the final installation bill.

Meet the key players
So who are the main players in the satcom market- and what do they offer? Inmarsat has offered its Internet Protocol (IP)-based 432kbps SwiftBroadband and 64kbps Swift64 services for a while now- but the launch of its lightweight 200kbps SB200 service (with equipment that can easily be fitted into a smaller business jet) is also proving popular.

The London- UK-headquartered company recently announced that it was to offer more attractive pricing (for air transport)- and double the number of channels available per aircraft as part of the evolution of the service. Four-channel SwiftBroadband became available in October- and as part of this change a maximum of two channels per aircraft can be used for streaming IP services at any one time.

Inmarsat has also announced that it is working to bring connectivity to helicopters by 2013. SwiftBroadband and its short-burst waveform have not been well suited in the past for use on rotary-winged aircraft- but the introduction of a new waveform will make a big difference.

As mentioned- for smaller business aircraft the lightweight Inmarsat SB200 makes a lot of sense. Offering up to 200kbps throughput- Inmarsat is working on a new antenna design- which (when combined with the new bearer technology) will increase coverage from 15 degrees elevation above the horizon down to five degrees. This means that SB200 will work even further north in latitude than it currently does.

If you want an Inmarsat installation you’ll need to go through a supplier- such as OnAir- Aeromobile or Satcom Direct.

Boeing is currently working on three 702HP Ka-band satellites that will form the Inmarsat I-5 constellation when they are fully operational in 2014. If you were to fit SwiftBroadband now you would have to upgrade your antenna and terminal when Global Xpress (GX) becomes available- although Inmarsat expects the two services to be complementary (not for GX to replace SwiftBroadband).

If you can’t wait for Inmarsat GX- however- and think L-band is too slow- there is an alternative - ViaSat’s Yonder high-speed connectivity is now available for business aircraft. Yonder promises cablelike performance- plus seamless connections around the globe- via a Ku-band connection. Ku-band offers typical connection speeds of 1–2 Mbps to 128–1024kbps from the aircraft.

Meanwhile- the ViaSat VMT-1500 has Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs) for Boeing- Bombardier- Cessna- Gulfstream and other aircraft and is sold exclusively through ViaSat-authorised Maintenance Repair Overhaul (MRO) facilities around the world. ViaSat currently has extensive coverage throughout the world via its partner KVH Industries. And there are plans to extend this further over the next few years- especially over parts of North Africa- Eastern Europe- the Far East and Northern Scandinavia. There is currently good coverage over the Middle East.

Another alternative available right now is Iridium. While Inmarsat uses a constellation of geostationary satellites- Iridium has a fleet of more than 60 lowearth 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.

Aeronautical safety services- or a lack of them- used to be Iridium’s Achilles’ heel- but that is now changing. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently authorised aircraft operating in oceanic airspace to use Iridium’s satellite data service for critical air traffic control communications. This marked the completion of the FAA process evaluating aircraft flying in airspace under its jurisdiction to use Future Air Navigation System (FANS) 1/A over Iridium to meet communications requirements for air traffic control.

Iridium has a major advantage over Inmarsat – cost. An Inmarsat highgain system comes in at $300-000 to $400-000 or more- but a basic Iridium installation runs between $30-000 and $60-000 per aircraft. The Iridium antenna is also smaller- lighter and omni-directional. If you have no need for multiple channels and 200/432kbps download speeds (Iridium will only let you download small email files at a lower data rate of about 2.4kbps) Iridium could be worth consideration.

Last year Panasonic Avionics and Lufthansa Technik announced plans to form a joint venture - IDAIR - to provide in-flight entertainment and cabin management systems for VIP operators. Designed to couple with Lufthansa Technik’s “NICE” system and Panasonic Avionics’ X series ’NICE’ is still at an early phase of development for IDAIR- but with Panasonic’s satcom backing this looks to be a promising development.

If you don’t mind restricting yourself to connectivity only when you are over the continental U.S.- Aircell is also worth consideration. Aircell’s Gogo Biz service operates over an exclusive- proprietary air-to-ground link utilizing a network of wireless towers in the US. It uses a modified version of the same 3G mobile technology employed by Sprint- Verizon and others to provide nationwide cell phone coverage.

Aircell says that its voice quality and internet speeds in-flight rival those on the ground. Most major aircraft manufacturers as well as some major fractional and charter operators use it. Aircell is also a distributor for both Inmarsat and Iridium for markets outside the continental U.S. and Alaska.

Wired or Wireless?
With this type of connectivity your laptop (either connected wirelessly or hard-wired to your satellite terminal) will let you work the way you would on the ground – albeit with a slightly slower internet connection.

It is possible to send basic emails via the wired or wireless connection. You will normally pay on a per-megabyte basis (typical costs being around $0.08/e-mail). To surf the internet you still pay on a permegabyte basis (typically around $8.95/Mb on an Inmarsat pay-per-use data scheme).

Once fitted- satcoms also allow you to use your mobile telephone just as if you were on the ground. You can choose between a wired or wireless system in the aircraft. The wired option used to be the most popular- but onboard WiFi is now gaining in popularity. Honeywell recommends that you need a single WiFi installation for every 50 feet of open cabin. This means that for an average business jet one WiFi gateway will suffice.

A typical wired installation- such as EMS Aviation’s HSD-400 highspeed data terminal and CMX-100 cabin gateway would give you two analog phone connections and two ethernet connections for internet. This allows you to use your Blackberry- iPhone or other device fairly seamlessly- (paying roughly $1.50/min. for voice calls). [You actually pay for the amount of bandwidth you use- not on the length of the call- so costs are approximate.]

If that isn’t enough- a terminal like the EMS HSD-400 and a CCU- 200 (cabin network gateway) would give you the capability to have up to 18 different telephone handsets connected.

But can you be sure your calls are secure? In reality it would be very hard to intercept and decode satellite telephone calls- but if you are still worried- they can be encrypted (turned into complex code) just as easily as any other form of data- using any one of various types of secure phone equipment.

So there- in a nutshell- you have it: a choice of connectivity providers in the MENA region- all giving you airborne connectivity that was unheard of a mere decade ago.

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