How Much Jet Connectivity do you Really Need?

What should an aircraft owner be asking when deciding which cabin connectivity solution works best for them? How much is too much? Gogo’s Brian Wilson and SmartSky’s Nancy Walker offer advice...

Dave Higdon  |  17th June 2019
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Getting the right Jet Connectivity Level

Jet Connectivity - How can you get the right balance?
What should an aircraft owner be asking when deciding which cabin connectivity solution works best for them? How much is too much, and what are the mistakes that would lead to too little? Dave Higdon asks Gogo’s Brian Wilson and SmartSky’s Nancy Walker…
Like so many business decisions, selecting the right hardware and service for your aircraft’s in-flight-connectivity (IFC) system involves questions of balance. Understanding what the aircraft can accommodate is just one of the many decisions the process involves.
The ideal is to install a system capable of handling all of the demands you will place on it at the promised speed and bandwidths. Preferably this will be achieved for as little money as possible. But how do you assess what you really need and arrive at your goal?
How Much Jet Connectivity Would You Like?

Brian Wilson, director, key accounts at Gogo Business Aviation offers some insights: “The first question,” he explains, “cuts through the glitz.
“When a client recently transitioned from a Beechcraft King Air to a Dassault Falcon 50, they sat down with us seeking to understand what solutions are out there. The first thing I asked them to describe is what they thought would make a great passenger experience.”
Some clients will want everything – immediately – streamed to their cabin. Others might specify use of email as being important in-flight whereas watching a movie or listening to music will be secondary on their wish-list.
“To do this right you need to start with a trusted advisor,” Wilson stipulates. That advisorshould know which options are viable for the aircraft, the hardware options, the costs and the service options.
Jet Connectivity: Where Will You Fly?

While satellite systems would work as a solution virtually anywhere on the planet, these tend to use larger antennae and higher-output hardware – so not every aircraft can accommodate all of the system options.
The key question, notes Nancy Walker, chief commercial officer, SmartSky Network, is where you predominantly will fly. “Is it within the US, or do you fly – or expect to fly – a lot of over-water flying? If your flight profiles are split between over-ground and over-water, we'll recommend you look at a hybrid system.”
Even if aircraft size allows the use of a satellite-based system, Walker elaborates, a hybrid system with a ground-based-connectivity option can perform better, saving on connection costs. But if over-water international operations aren't in the equation, a system like the ground-based network of SmartSky Networks or Gogo can deliver lower costs on installation and usage.
Having established what comes top of a client’s wish-list and where you need to fly, Wilson and Walker address issues common to almost all users.
How Much Jet Connectivity Do You Really Need?
How Will Your Jet’s Connectivity Needs Grow?

Another relevant question for selecting a new or upgraded cabin connectivity system is what you see yourself needing to do on-board the aircraft. Better still, what do you anticipate wanting to do, in the future? “We look at what's coming in the market as well as what's available,” Walker says.
“If you want to keep in-flight productivity high, you need to look at a system that can fulfill current needs and handle growth in the future.”
What’s Your Jet Connectivity Budget?

The cost basis applied to using jet connectivity services often varies according to the type of use; be it texting, viewing documents and emails at the lower end of the scale, or live streaming at the upper end.
In anticipating costs it’s important to forecast how much usage the system will see over the course of a year, factoring what you want your actual jet connectivity budget to achieve. Although the system will only get used while the aircraft is being operated, Wilson points out that “if the aircraft sees 500 hours of use in a year it's at the high-end of average.”
And it’s not uncommon for a customer to flinch at some of the costs when first seeing them. Wilson relayed a familiar story in this ‘connected-everywhere’ age of an operator who returned from a European trip with his wife and four children and received a bill for more than $30,000 for the movies and videos the four children streamed to their personal devices throughout the flight.
Technologically, delivering internet access to an aircraft requires overcoming some complex challenges.
Paying for those solutions incurs costs to the vendor predicated on usage. In a primer called ‘The anatomy of in-flight connectivity’, Gogo outlines the complexity:
“From securing certifications and regulatory approvals, to providing real-time in-air customer care, network management and more, making IFC work involves more than getting an aircraft online. IFC is also about making the most of the bandwidth and making that bandwidth work for your bottom line.”
For the end-user, however it's all about making a working connection every time it's needed and recovering such an expense translates into a use-based total on the bill, which is something to keep in mind when researching the available options and their various costs.
So when questions of budget arise, the focus sharpens from what you’d like to have in your cabin connectivity solution, to what you really need – and how you’ll manage those costs.
Each vendor uses its own formula for setting prices for basic connection, voice calls, email and text, and for streaming costs and high data-use connections. That's where the dollars really begin to stack up.
How Much Cabin Connectivity Do You Need?
What do Users Want from Their Jet Connectivity?

For a question with so many variables, the answer seems blindingly simple: “They want everything they have in the office,” explained Wilson. “Not coincidentally, that's what they get on their portable devices – their phones and tablets. Everything.”
No surprise, then, that what they use on the ground is what they want to use in-flight. But for the most efficient connection, Walker notes, the ground-based options typically offer the fastest connections with the smallest latency cycles – the time it takes data to make the round trip from the sender through the system to the recipient and back to the sender.
Today, in-flight connectivity is a round-trip proposition. The time signals may need to cover 45,000 miles, between the aircraft, the satellite, and back again.
If the aircraft operates within the continental US, a terrestrial-based system (air-to-ground) will provide a good solution. But air-to-ground won't be a viable connection elsewhere in the world. That's satellite territory.
How Secure is the Jet Connectivity Solution?

Finally, owners and operators should consider the crucial matter of security. SmartSky protects the integrity of its 4GLTE network through dedicating connections to one client, and says its system is ready to meet the latest security protocols, which require a two-way system with low latency.
A key element to SmartSky's security effort is its single beam system. “We don't share,” Walker explained. “What passes through that beam isn't shared with any other system – it's dedicated to you.” SmartSky uses antenna-beam shaping from the aircraft to the tower, with only one beam talking to one aircraft at a time.
“When we launch there will be 27,000 beams in our system and there are only 6,000 aircraft. So we have plenty of capacity.”
Gogo is also hot on security. “We like to say security is built-in and not bolted-on,” Doug Young, vice president, software architecture, told AvBuyer in a recent interview. “By that, we mean every aspect of our telecom network as well as the hardware and software of the onboard systems.
“Because we uniquely operate and manage our systems end-to-end, we can monitor and analyze the security of our network and onboard systems. And, through our own standards – or in partnership with the FAA and other aviation stakeholders – we’re solving cybersecurity problems before they happen.”
In Summary…

Working through the list of obvious questions, what you want and what you need can soon become two different things. Ultimately, the solution you select for your aircraft will be driven by a combination of your aircraft size and your priorities, whether budget, security or evolving needs.
The wise operator will take Wilson’s tip and start the journey with a trusted advisor who understands all of the options, and how they work for their client’s aircraft.
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