Private jet connectivity solutions have made major advances in larger cabin aircraft, and within smaller aircraft flying in continental North America. But how are the choices advancing for operators internationally? Brian Wilson explores…
Suitable satellite solutions for Large Cabin jets have materialized over the last few years with the introduction of Ka-band, and the revitalization of Ku-. Many articles have been written covering the pros and cons of each system.
The adoption rate on the Large Cabin jets has been noteworthy. Customers seem to be satisfied with the features, bandwidth and coverage area provided by these high-end systems. However, due to the size of the antenna, the costs of the hardware, installation and service, they are tailored to the top-tiered aircraft in our industry.
So what are the options for the Small to Mid-size aircraft, or even the Large Jet operators that don’t have the budget for Ka- or Ku-band? Their need for cabin connectivity is just as important. What’s more, they represent most of the fleet worldwide.
What’s Available for Your Aircraft Today?
For those operators who don’t fit into the upper echelon of Ka- and Ku-band adopters, the solutions available today consists of a short list with noticeable limitations.
Iridium: A constellation of 66 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites orbiting 476 miles from the earth, Iridium provides true worldwide coverage for customers. Currently, Iridium provides unparalleled voice communication anywhere in the world.
Currently, however, the datalink is merely a tool to send text messages or non-graphical emails without attachments. Surfing the internet, downloading documents or performing any type of social media is prohibited by the data speed.
Iridium, as it stands today, is more suited to the owner/operator who might make a few phones calls or send a few texts messages while flying.
Swift Broadband (SBB): Following the full deployment of Inmarsat’s I-4 satellite constellation in 2009, SBB quickly became the industry leader in meeting the connectivity requirements of international operators.
Each I-4 satellite combines 228 spot beams with 19 regional beams allowing for much higher data speeds when compared to its I-3 predecessor. More importantly, the technology was designed with smaller antennae which provided a viable solution to Small and Mid-size aircraft. The three primary antenna and service options are categorized as follows:
- High Gain Antenna (HGA): Class 6 (432Kbps)
- Intermediate Gain Antenna (IGA): Class 7 (332Kbps)
- Low gain Antenna (LGA): Class 15 (200Kbps)
The antenna size is directly correlated with the coverage area. The Class 6 HGA covers most of the world except for the north and south polar regions. The HGA solution is better suited for larger jets due to the size of the antenna, which is usually mounted on the top of the tail section underneath a radome.
The IGA and LGA, by contrast, are fuselage mounted antennas. The LGA Class 15 has the least coverage area. However, this product was designed for smaller jets that don’t typically fly oceanic routes.
Although the data speeds can be increased somewhat through compression and bundling of channels, SBB is not able to keep up with the increased demands for bandwidth from the flying public. Inmarsat sells its service through distribution partners who package the data pricing, handle the billing and provide technical support to the aviation community.
Operators should be aware that monthly billing rates can exceed tens of thousands of dollars, meaning that proper monitoring of data usage coupled with setting threshold notifications is a necessary practice. Nevertheless, SBB continues to be the primary solution for most of today’s international business jet market.
What Alternative Solutions are Coming to Market?
If you were to type ‘futuristic satellite solutions’ into any search engine, the results will yield a plethora of ‘magic dust’ concoctions. Having already ordained the Ku- and Ka-band solution for the Large jet market, we will focus on viable alternative solutions for the Small to Mid-size jet operators. Qualifications include:
- The service must be available in the next 9–18 months;
- The network is fully funded and in position;
- The aircraft flight testing has been vetted and documented; and
- Regulatory approval has been achieved (or time stamped) before the service launch.
Certus: With the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket out of Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 11, 2019, Iridium’s new constellation of 75 satellites was completed. 66 of these satellites will serve as the active network and the remaining nine will serve as backups.
Although the Certus network is now live, service for the aviation community will not begin until Q4 2019, or possibly Q1 2020. The LEO satellites will provide coverage anywhere in the world, including the polar regions. The network will provide both voice and data services.
The satellites are ‘backwards compatible’, meaning they will work with the Iridium equipment currently installed onboard your aircraft. To benefit from the increased data speeds and improved voice quality, operators will need to perform an upgrade of their system.
The proposed data speeds range from 88-1,408kbps and will roll-out sequentially. Most service providers will forgo the two lower rates of 88/176kbps and focus on the latter three (352, 704 and 1408kbps). The reasoning is that the two lower speeds do not provide the bandwidth needed by the aviation community; whereas the other three are similar to SBB and have the increased coverage area.
The Iridium Certus network will keep you connected from take-off to landing anywhere in the world, and the top mounted fuselage antenna will accommodate Small to Mid-size aircraft due to its compact size, removing the need to be placed under a radome. This is an advantage over SBB which requires a tail mounted high gain antenna (HGA) to achieve its 432Kbps data speed.
The smaller antenna and increased coverage area are compelling reasons for new operators to consider Certus for their aircraft. However, since equipment and service pricing have not yet been defined, existing SBB customers should wait and see whether competition reduces the service plans available today.
Certus could also open the door to adopting satcom as a primary means of communications in lieu of HF when over the oceanic regions. Iridium is already a source for safety services and Certus will most certainly continue that trend.
European Aviation Network (EAN): EAN is a hybrid Satellite and Air-to-Ground (ATG) network that will cover all members of the European Union, as well as Norway, Switzerland and the UK. The hybrid network consists of one Inmarsat S-band satellite and roughly 300 Deutsche Telekom ground towers.
The multi-beam satellite is a complement to the 4G LTE ground network. This unique combination is designed to use the best link to provide customers with the fastest performance and deliver the capacity required within the stated coverage area.
The ATG component resembles the successful model used by Gogo Business Aviation in the US. Both use belly-mounted antennae to communicate with the hundreds of ground-based towers. However, the EAN solution will also require an antenna mounted on the top of the fuselage for satellite transmissions.
The airline model will use two belly mounted antennas; whereas the corporate design indicates a single antenna. To complete the system profile, four additional line replacement units will need to be installed with the total shipset weight between 30-35lbs.
Data speeds have not yet been widely publicized, though test flights have demonstrated the ability to stream content, use of a corporate VPN and Facetime calling. It’s important, however, to point out that these capabilities were established with the two-antenna configuration.
Based on the design of current ATG systems in service today, a one-antenna solution will create a few technical challenges to overcome in order to achieve similar results. Moreover, flying one aircraft in close vicinity of a tower is akin to being at an airport where you are the only one using the public Wi-Fi. In short, EAN has yet to prove it can achieve its goal when hundreds of aircraft are flying and sharing the network.
Another resemblance between EAN and ATG is in the rollout to the aviation community. Gogo first successfully launched the ATG network with the airlines before penetrating the private jet market. EAN is following a similar path. Beta testing has been completed and the anticipated launch for the favoured airline partners is expected later in 2019.
As of this writing, no date has been given for the business jet community although the expectation is for some time in 2020.
Growing International Connectivity Options
Once these new systems have been introduced to the aviation community, operators will have more options for connectivity. And based on the implementation period, it’s safe to say that a few additional solutions will move from their current design phase into a funded and tangible product over the next 18 months.
The true paradigm shift will occur when the increased competition drives down the cost of service. In my experience, the most inhibiting factor for operators when deciding whether to move forward with an international connectivity solution is the cost of the monthly service. The combined yearly service costs can exceed the installation costs within as little as 1-3 years.
To get the best value, operators should review the options that fit both their flight profile and the mission of the aircraft. Remember to factor in the antenna size limitation, and don’t be surprised if this results in a dual configuration for your aircraft.
Air to Ground (ATG) networks will continue to deliver faster data speeds over satellite solutions for Small to Mid-sized jets until a breakthrough in antenna technology permits Ka- and Ku-band-type data speeds to work with smaller fuselage antennas. Many technological advancements must happen to achieve this monumental milestone, however.
Until then, the good news is that you now have more choices, and by just understanding “why” there are limitations for your aircraft category, you can right-size the “experience” expectations for your passengers.