From bandwidth to bit-rate, Satcom options keep growing – and they’re getting faster
Thanks to the emergence of in-flight connectivity, those flying globally enjoy connections with work colleagues and business contacts via Wi-Fi and Internet of Things (IoT). Dave Higdon discusses where jet connectivity is heading with Gogo Biz and ViaSat…
Wireless communications quickly became the first major challenge tackled by military air services in the fledgling years of aviation. The earliest success came in 1915, and involved radio operators keying and decoding wireless Morse code messages. Then in February 1917 technicians achieved the first successful voice communication between an aircraft and the ground.
That represented the state of in-flight communications within cockpits for decades. However, another breakthrough in analog radio technology brought passengers the ability to ‘phone it in’ from the cabin. Then came in-flight text-messaging technology, which ultimately evolved into Internet-connected hardware.
Ground stations were the first to provide aircraft with In-Flight Connectivity (IFC), before satellite-based systems followed. From L-band to K-band, from faster Ka-band, to the even faster Ku-band (and more to come), technology has evolved rapidly in recent years. The ‘band’ in use refers to the radio frequencies used to and from the satellite, as follows:
Today, broader access to the hardware supporting IFC helps expand the range of aircraft eligible for hosting the systems. And in parallel, the service providers continue to expand their offerings, in terms of accessibility, bandwidth and speed – to the point of nearing parity with systems on the ground.
While airlines have grappled with the level of service to offer and how to make it cost-effective, Business Aviation operators have increasingly embraced the costs (both the buy-in and user fees) as another metric for conducting business from the airport ramp to the flight levels, around the world, seamlessly.
How In-Flight Connectivity Works
In-flight Wi-Fi is getting faster and relatively cheaper, and is an increasingly common offering on Light, Mid-size and Large-Cabin business jets – much as it's become a staple on discount carriers and major airlines. But how does in-flight Wi-Fi actually work?
Today, internet traffic exchanges take one of two paths between an aircraft aloft and a person on the ground:
How fast this happens and how much traffic the system can handle varies with the hardware and the service provider.
In Flight Connectivity: It’s Catching Up
Brian Wilson, Director, Key Accounts at Gogo Business Aviation (https://business.gogoair.com) sees an accelerating industry, but with some built-in speed bumps.
“Gogo allows clients to stream both in the US on Air-To-Ground (ATG) via GogoBiz 4G, and then anywhere in the world with Ku-band,” Wilson told AvBuyer. “Clients can also stream movies from our device or connect their own content to be shared, stored on-board and even viewed on the on-board monitors.
“Due to certification on aircraft, however, airborne IFC will always lag behind what people can do on the ground,” he added. “That does not appease the flying public, though, which continues to be younger.”
The average age of corporate jet passengers has dropped to 38, an all-time low, and they are an age group known for their heavy usage of social media, movie streaming and alternative television viewing. These passengers tend to use more bandwidth – which equates to a requirement for more data.
That demand for greater and faster service drives today's system upgrades, Wilson notes. “Where does that take us? We are seeing a transition to high bandwidth satellite solutions (Ka- and Ku-band).” He believes that Iridium Next, which is growing in its satellite coverage, “…will face many challenges. The speeds they hope to have are behind what is required today.”
Wilson said that the Ka- and Ku-band satellites deliver the speeds and bandwidth required by all the streaming that passengers want.
“Gogo has announced a Ku-band system that will roll-out in mid-2018 with speeds starting at 25mbps. We are leveraging this with our airline unit that has 2Ku and sees speeds of 40-80mbps.”
For the future, Wilson only sees more to come with ATG throughput speeds upward of 35Mbps to as high as 100mbps when Gogo releases its next generation LTE in late 2018.
James Person, Director of Business Development, Business Aviation & VIP markets for ViaSat (www.viasat.com) offered his perspectives to AvBuyer. “We look at the Business Aviation market encompassing nearly 20,000 aircraft globally. Of those, one can say that nearly all have some level of connectivity, even if it’s just DataLink for the pilots.
“Our focus is on high-speed connectivity for the cabin, crew, and even for on-board systems and engines.” Plenty of growth is expected, Person explained. “In the world of high-speed communications on business jets, fewer than 1,000 business aircraft have that level of connectivity. With access to ViaSat's complete satellite communications network, business jet passengers, pilots and crew can expect an ‘at home’ or office-like internet experience.
“There are two angles to IFC growth,” Person elaborated. “‘Back of the plane’ and ‘front of the plane’ – both are on different cycles."
"From a ‘back of the plane’ perspective we’re focused on getting the passengers and the flight crew fully-connected. Wi-Fi is a must for business jets that fly globally, and our goal is to make connecting to the in-cabin internet system effortless.
“From a ‘front of the plane’ perspective, providing front-end diagnostics for operational savings is a big focus. We’re already thinking about the business jet traveler’s needs – especially when it comes to size and bandwidth.”
Persons elaborated on some of the opportunities he sees within the development of front of plane connectivity. “There is a tremendous opportunity to provide connectivity for sensor tracking of big data requirements. That could include everything from pilot weather and turbulence tracking to in-flight engine and operational repairs.
“And there's plenty of growth to come within the connectivity arena, with approvals for installations a significant consideration. Our latest high capacity system, for example, has the same footprint as our former generation’s shipset, so approvals have been straightforward,” Person explained. “We see the biggest opportunity in educating the buyer, because not all IFC - and certainly not all Ka-band - is the same.”
With all of the developments emerging within In-Flight Connectivity today, the key consideration for any operator to track closely remains capacity.
Ultimately, capacity translates to a better internet performance in congested air corridors; faster overall internet speeds; higher data allowances for bandwidth-intensive applications like streaming, and better overall pricing structures.