What questions should operators be weighing up as they make their cabin connectivity selection? How can the available solutions be tailored to specific mission needs? Viasat’s James Person offers insights…
The decision to purchase a used business jet requires the assessment of a myriad of factors — everything from the airplane’s technical specifications to the color of the carpet. Whether it’s an owner-flown Entry-Level jet or an Ultra-Long-Range, Large Cabin jet, the airplane must fit the mission needs of its owners, operators and passengers.
Of course, for an aircraft to be fully mission-capable it is now an expectation that passengers and crew will be able to connect to ground-based data services and the internet while cruising comfortably at 41,000 feet.
Whether the need is to access email and social media, or streaming content and teleconferencing, the passengers’ need for connectivity is a non-negotiable.
Business and personal lives don’t just stop when boarding an airplane anymore. So, if meeting the mission needs of your passengers is your central goal, the on-board connectivity must come close to matching the experience on the ground.
Yet getting that capability has become a challenging decisionmaking process for many owners and operators. In-flight connectivity has seen significant advances in recent years with new technologies promising previously unheard-of capabilities.
Established and robust Ku-band satellite services are now being joined by advanced Ka-band satellites, such as the ViaSat-2 system. New Air-to-Ground (ATG) services are also being developed, including a high-bandwidth, focused-beam technology.
So how do you begin tailoring the cabin connectivity solution aboard your airplane to your mission needs? With the increasing number of options available, the first step in deciding on a system and provider should begin — just as in the purchase decision — with the airplane itself.
Tip #1: Connectivity to Match the Aircraft
The physical specifications of the aircraft are a key element of the connectivity decision. A smaller aircraft can usually only accommodate blade-type antennas, such as those used by ATG or low-speed L-band services.
While more compact satellite antennas are on the horizon, today, only aircraft in the size range of the Cessna Citation X and above can be fitted with a Ku, Ka or hybrid satellite antenna. The antenna is just one part of the equation, however.
There needs to be space for the electronic components that complete the solution, whether located inside or outside of the pressurized cabin. The electronics may be rack-mounted or located in a baggage compartment, and consideration has to be given for the wiring that connects all of the systems.
Regardless, operators should always consult with their maintenance provider to determine what equipment can be installed in their jet.
Tip #2: Technology to fit the Need
A very viable and satisfactory solution for smaller aircraft that fly over the continental US can be an ATG service, which utilizes a network of ground-based towers. But once a Mid-size or Large-Cabin jet heads out to sea on a trans-oceanic route, ATG simply ceases to work. That’s when satellite comes into play. A satellite solution will keep an airplane connected from ramp to ramp, at any altitude, almost anywhere in the world, and Ku- and Ka-band satellite services can provide a stable, high-bandwidth connection.
The newest evolution of the Ku-band network requires only a small antenna to be installed on the top of the jet’s tail fin. Wiring from the antenna feeds the system’s electronics, made up of just three Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) located in the cabin or in the airplane’s avionics bay.
Various satellite providers have different equipment requirements downstream of the antenna. Some will require five or six LRUs, or perhaps larger components that can only be installed in the luggage compartment.
Thus, an operator should carefully evaluate the technology footprint, and the trade-off against avionics or baggage space.
(If the equipment can live outside the pressurized cabin and not take up valuable luggage space, that’s a win — and something nearly every principal will find interest in.)
The ability to easily upgrade a satellite service is another important factor to consider. It makes little sense to commit funds and resources to a solution that doesn’t show a clear upgrade path, or one that isn’t future-proofed.
At the same time, an upgrade has to be easy. It shouldn’t require the near disassembly of an airplane to install new equipment and wiring. Does the provider recognize the importance of minimal aircraft downtime, and does this reflect in ‘forward compatible’ equipment that will make future upgrades (for example from Ku- to Ka-band service a relatively simple process)?
Owners and maintenance teams should also evaluate the available support and service packages. Nobody wants to have a lengthy aircraft on ground (AOG) situation.
Tip #3: Selecting Coverage and Capacity
Perhaps surprisingly to some, coverage, though important, shouldn’t be the key factor in deciding an in-flight connectivity service provider. (Naturally, it’s important to know about the number of satellites in the network, or where the signal in a satellite’s network can be received — because you want to ensure where you typically fly will be covered in the footprint.)
But possibly even more important than that is the capability of the network, its speed and its capacity. This is critical because the satellite’s network footprint could be global, but if the
service provider doesn’t have enough capacity, you won’t be able to be productive.
Capacity is what enables principals, the cockpit and crew to do more in-flight.
There are hundreds of communications satellites in orbit, with thousands more planned for future networks in low-, medium- and high geosynchronous altitude orbits. Service providers both own and lease this orbital capacity. It’s important for corporate aircraft operators to find out how that “space segment” translates into capacity, and what applications you can perform with that capacity — especially in congested air corridors.
Additional questions might include:
Operators need to be thinking long-term, because it’s too expensive to install one system today, only to have to replace it in a few years’ time.
Tip #4: Knowing the Data Costs
Along with the evaluation of technology, a savvy owner should look closely at the on-going costs for data connectivity. Just as in the mobile phone sector, there are different plans available from service providers.
Optimizing the plan to meet the aircraft’s mission is critical, while recognizing that plans for different technologies and services may vary from a per-megabyte usage model to monthly flat-rate packages.
Flat-rate packages are far easier to build into a budget, in large part because of the challenge of determining the expected consumption of data, based on the variable size of emails, attachments and websites. If you plan to do any kind of video streaming or teleconferencing on board, you’re going to need a robust service that offers plenty of data.
For private or corporate operators, flat-rate monthly packages tend to be recommended because they remove surprise overage charges. For charter operators, hourly options are often preferable.
Aero connectivity is an exciting, fast-moving part of aviation giving new opportunities for advanced safety-of-flight services, and an enhanced passenger experience. The key is to recognize your application needs first to ensure you’re asking the right questions when evaluating a long-term connectivity partner.
More information from www.viasat.com