Why might now be the right time to plan your aircraft's next satellite solution? Brian Wilson discusses the increased data consumption by today's passengers that'll exceed your current jet connectivity solution if you'll let it.
Increased data consumption by today’s passengers will exceed your current cabin connectivity system if you’ll let it. Gogo’s Brian Wilson explains why now’s the time to plan for your next satellite solution…
Ask any Commercial Information Officer (CIO) of any leading aircraft charter or management company what passengers feel about their current connectivity experience and the most common answer will almost certainly sound like this:
“They seem to like it, but they also wish it was faster…” Such companies spend a lot of time tracking the profile of their passengers. What is becoming apparent is that they’re getting younger; they’re obsessed with their personal devices; and they are easily frustrated by a bad experience.
Their dependency on social media, video streaming, applications and cloud services severely impacts the available bandwidth of today’s on-board satellite systems.
Coupled with increased use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) for security reasons, growing Facetime and video conferencing, you can easily end up with a saturated system or a “Wi-Fi inoperative” discrepancy.
This sense of unfulfilment is shared across individual operators (both business and private owners). The need for more speed and bandwidth will always challenge the aircraft industry because passengers expect the same experience in the air that they have in the office or at home. Unfortunately, aircraft regulatory procedures (and the certification process) will always result in the aircraft experience lagging ground-based experiences.
Yet, if you have the right airframe and budget, viable solutions are available. Now may well be the time to plan your next upgrade.
Introducing Ku- and Ka-Band
The most common satellite solution on board Mid-size to Large Cabin aircraft over recent years has been SwiftBroadband (SBB). Providing international data and voice services to 1,000+ business aircraft, the limitations in data rates of SBB has repositioned it as a function of safety services today.
Given that Wi-Fi is not a luxury but a necessity, the data and bandwidth requirements demanded by today’s international passengers can only be met by a Ka- or Ku-band solution. Both Ka- and Ku-band are satellite based solutions using geostationary satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth.
Ku works in the range of frequencies from 12-18 Gigahertz (GHZ) while Ka has the frequency range of 26-40 GHZ. Their symbols equate to K-under and K-above the K frequency band of 18-26 GHZ.
Irrespective of what some might claim, Ku and Ka are simply two different frequency bands. Both are very capable of streaming and of internet data rates that exceed the normal passenger requirement on today’s business aircraft.
Ku- and Ka-Band: The Planning Process
The typical system consists of a tail mounted parabolic antenna and two to three Line Replacement Units (LRU). For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the tail mounted antenna because it can alter both the installation costs and downtime required to perform the upgrade, due to the necessity for a radome to be installed on the tail to both house the antenna and protect it from the elements.
Understanding the Radome: Determining whether you have the correct radome is an important factor during the planning process. The word radome is a blending of the words radar and dome, and every aircraft today that has an onboard weather radar system has a radome mounted on the nose.
Each radome is constructed of specific materials that minimally diminish the electromagnetic signal passing through it to the antenna. Thus, a bad radome or an incorrect one will severely impact the performance of the system. ‘Transmissivity’ is the industry word for this phenomenon.
Visually, you can identify whether an aircraft has a radome on the tail by either the bullet-shaped style, or the enhanced ‘camel hump’ style.
Technically, you can determine the radome type by identifying what systems are currently installed on your aircraft. Many aircraft today operate with SBB, Satellite TV and early-generation Ku-band systems, and a majority of these configurations will have required a tail-mounted antenna enclosed by a radome.
The costs to install a new radome is well over a $100k and requires hundreds of hours of sheet metal work, adding a few days to the aircraft’s downtime.
Some new in-production Large Cabin jets have Ka-band radomes, but for aircraft already in operation, the likelihood is that you will need a new Ka-band radome. For Ku-band solution-seekers, in most cases the existing radome should be a workable one.
Additional Antennas: Once you’ve established the facts about the radome, the next phase of planning is to determine if another antenna could fit under it. Two antennas are quite common and are unlikely to be an issue, but once you require a third the challenges begin.
If your airframe can only fit two antennas, then a decision to remove either the TV or SBB will need to be made. Do keep in mind that both the Ka- and Ku-band solutions are subject to ‘rain fade’ and cannot be used for safety services. Thus, it’s possible that the SBB system must remain.
Ku- and Ka-Band Monthly Rates
Comparing and understanding the monthly service plans for these two satellite solutions is as easy as dissecting the terms and conditions of your variable annuity. Service providers tend to focus on how fast their data-rates will deliver while quoting the lower tiers of the pricing structure.
As we assess the reality, we must first understand two terms:
MIR represents the best-case data rate that you could ever achieve. If the MIR is 15Mbps, that is the highest data rate your passengers will ever experience, under perfect conditions. The CIR rate, meantime, represents the minimum data speed the service provider promises to always deliver. (Early providers used to refer to CIR as the Guaranteed Information Rate (GIR) to emphasize the bottom rate of functionality.)
These terms and pricing matrix apply to both the Uplink and Downlink data speeds.
The most important point to remember is that in almost all service pricing plans, the MIR being advertised will almost certainly be tied to the most expensive option in the plan.
It is natural that most operators will want to save some costs and pick a lower tiered plan, however. Be aware that both the MIR and CIR rates will decrease. Additionally, be aware that there are no unlimited plans so if your pick a lower option and your passengers stream a lot of data, you will be exposed to ‘overage’ fees.
It is essential for you to match the right pricing structure that allows data speeds that will satisfy your passengers without breaking your budget.
Typically, the types of installations discussed above are planned during a maintenance event because the downtime can be 12- 18+ days. The downtime is ultimately predicated on how many shifts your preferred MRO or OEM has in place.
On the subject of your installation facility, be sure that it is experienced in these sophisticated upgrades. Proper tooling and training is needed to ensure the job is done correctly and both the aircraft and installation personnel are safe.
The proper facilities have tail stands specifically designed for your aircraft (undertaking this type of work with scissor lifts is ill-advised). In most cases the leading edge of the vertical fin will need removal to enable cabling to be added and/or substantiate the conduit for the cables.
Installation costs will exceed half a million dollars (excluding the costs associated with the radome), and it is advised you request three proposals from accredited installation facilities helping you get the best price and downtime.
It’s also a good policy to have one of the crew members present during the ground and test flying of the system.
There is very little clearance between the antenna and the inside of the radome. No matter what maneuver the aircraft is performing, the electronically steered antenna is designed to rotate and stay locked onto the satellite. Be cognizant on your early flights to make sure the system is performing properly on all headings and flight profiles to ensure the antenna signal is not being partially blocked or obstructed inside the radome.
You paid for superior performance, so your passengers will expect only the best!