Jet Connectivity: Short-Term Development Outlook

Brian Wilson reviews the Business Aviation cabin connectivity market, reviewing how 5G and new satellite constellations will finally fix the laggard performance aviation aficionados have been experiencing over the past twenty years. What’s the short-term outlook...?

Brian Wilson  |  13th April 2022
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    Brian Wilson
    Brian Wilson

    Brian has more than 40 years’ experience in the aviation field, and currently he is the Director...

    A low-earth orbit satellite bringing connectivity to jet cabins

    There are some big developments afoot in the world of business jet connectivity, and it’s important for aircraft owners to be aware, ready to take advantage of enhanced capabilities.

    Although fast-moving and complex, the following outlook provides a simplified overview of what to look out for.

    Geostationary satellites have come a long way, with increased speeds and reliability in recent years. But they still have areas of weak (or no) coverage, are very expensive, and require a large mechanically steered antenna (MSA) to be installed on the aircraft.

    These Ku- and Ka-Band satellites are positioned 22,236 miles above the Earth and are susceptible to high latency, and weather effects on their performance. This high-end solution is suitable for only 25% of the business aircraft market, ultimately. 

    Inmarsat SwiftBroadBand (SBB), meanwhile, offers an alternative satellite solution for the rest of the marketplace, but has coverage and data-speed restrictions. Iridium constellations, meanwhile, provide worldwide coverage including the north and south polar regions. However, the data speeds associated with Iridium do not meet the expectations of today’s Business Aviation passengers.

    Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Constellation

    Enter the Low Earth Orbit constellation (LEO). Billions of dollars are being invested and allocated to produce a viable LEO network and constellation.

    No less than five well-funded companies have announced plans to launch a network, and have satellites currently in orbit. In fact, in 2020, these five companies launched 20 times more satellites than were launched less than ten years earlier, in 2011. 

    New technologies in satellite launching and rocket booster recoveries have led the way. Unlike the school bus-sized satellites associated with Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO), these new LEO satellites are the size of small, compact cars, allowing up to 60 to be launched at once.

    One new rocket scheduled to debut in late 2022 will have the capacity to launch up to 100 LEO satellites at the same time. Unlike the GEO network that has less than 10 satellites to complete its network, these LEO constellations will consist of thousands of satellites in orbit.

    The very high elevation of the GEO-stationary network allows expanded coverage, and when based at the equator these satellites can reach speeds equivalent to the Earth’s rotation, hence they are “stationary” above the Earth.

    The LEOs will also work on both the Ku- and Ka-Band frequencies, but at a lower orbit. They will be positioned 350-500 miles above the Earth, reducing latency by more than 50%.

    Moreover, because the LEO network is a lot closer to Earth the coverage area is a lot less, hence the need to have so many satellites. Whereas a GEO-based system can be locked to the same GEO satellite the entire flight, a LEO platform will have to “transition” from one satellite to the next every five to ten minutes.

    New, Advanced Antenna Needed

    All of this will require a new and advanced antenna for the aircraft. The mechanically steered antennas (MSAs) used today with GEO-based systems are not capable of tracking so many satellites every few minutes.

    That’s where a fuselage-mounted, electronically steered antenna (ESA) comes into play. Picture a small antenna located on top of the aircraft that looks similar to a miniature surfboard, and with no moveable mechanical parts. 

    While ESAs have been around for about twenty years, due to their original size and the fact that they are flat (and aircraft fuselages are curved), they were not ideal for aviation, unlike MSAs.

    New ESAs will have to be smaller and conform to the aperture of the fuselage better. The chances look promising, with no less than 25 companies aspiring to be the aviation supplier for LEO-based ESAs.

    Multi-beam tracking technology will allow the ESA to lock on to multiple satellites simultaneously, thus making transitions between satellites seamless. Reducing the size of the antenna will make LEO-based systems more attractive for Light and Mid-Size Jets.

    5G is Rolling Out

    Also on the horizon for Business Aviation connectivity is the fifth-generation of mobile communication. 5G is quickly rolling out globally for the millions of ground-based subscribers.

    For the thousands of aircraft based in the US, and those frequently flying to the US, Gogo Business Aviation is developing an end-to-end 5G system for the aviation community. Based on its current Avance L5 (4G) platform, Gogo 5G will enhance the passenger experience with its proprietary network designed exclusively for Business Aviation.

    Trial testing has found average speeds of 25Mb/second, peaking at 75-80Mb/second. This will clearly be a game-changer in the industry (current Avance L5 systems typically deliver an average 2-7+ Mb/second). Since the L5 can allow up to 2-3 simultaneous streams, Gogo 5G will allow most passengers to do what they want as though they were on the ground.

    The current ground network of 250 towers is being upgraded to 5G, and will be completed by end of 2022. 5G equipment will be available in Q1 2023.

    Five-Year Planning & Connectivity Forecast

    GEO systems: For owners/operators of Large Jets that already have a GEO-based Ku- or Ka-Band system or will install one in the next year or so, if you have the budget stick with your plan. The messaging coming from service providers is that their systems will be LEO-compatible.

    However, these MSA systems’ most vulnerable LRU is the mechanically steered antenna. Now faced with ‘excessive’ mechanical movement of tracking the large array of LEO satellites in a stabilized environment will surely reduce the meantime between failure rates.

    Swift Broadband (SBB) and Iridium: For the smaller airframes that fly outside of the US, these two networks provide the only alternative and are flying on thousands of aircraft. The LEO constellation will provide a welcomed option for these aircraft.

    The coverage area and data rates associated with SBB are tolerated, due to no other solution being available. Iridium provides worldwide coverage; however, the data speeds are below customer expectations.

    Both SBB and Iridium will continue to serve a role with safety services, aircraft tracking, and messaging, but they will be targeted by the LEO companies.

    Air-to-Ground (ATG): For the thousands of aircraft based in the US and flying with Gogo ATG and Avance platforms, the release of Gogo 5G later in 2022 will give passengers everything they need. The 5G rollout is fully funded, and the roadmap and milestones are already in place.

    Looking to Prepare for Connectivity Developments?

    As we often stress, reach out to at least three OEMs or MROs for consultation, testimonials and quotes to help ensure you are getting the right fit for your aircraft. While LEOs are still 3-4 years away, the manufacturers and outfitters are already educated and planning their strategies.

    With so many well-funded companies invested in this area, LEOs will not only become a reality, they will be major players in the market. Be sure to have your five-year plan and budget in place so you, too, can jettison into the next constellation.

    Do you have a specific aircraft maintenance, upgrade or repair need?

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    Brian Wilson

    Brian Wilson

    Editor, Jet Connectivity

    Brian has more than 40 years’ experience in the aviation field, and currently he is the Director of Key Accounts at Gogo Business Aviation

    Having worked 35 years in Business Aviation, Brian lists Jet Aviation West Palm Beach and Banyan Aviation amongst his previous employers where he has developed and planned STC certifications projects on cabin connectivity. He has been involved in more than 1,000 avionics installations, having previously headed up various avionics, engineering, and interior departments.



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