- 27 Jun 2022
- Brian Wilson
- Jet Connectivity
When it launches in late 2024, Gogo Business Aviation’s new LEO broadband-satcom network will revolutionize connectivity globally for all business aircraft — especially smaller ones, Sergio Aguirre tells Chris Kjelgaard...
According to Sergio Aguirre, President and COO of Gogo Business Aviation, his company doesn't build me-too products. He said so as he detailed the thinking and development behind his company’s biggest commercial project yet...
Aguirre is confident the project will be so disruptive to the market for in-flight connectivity for business and private aircraft that it will have a revolutionary positive impact on Business Aviation airborne telecommunications worldwide.
Throughout the past 12 years, ever since it launched its first US air-to-ground (ATG) cellular connectivity network, Gogo Business Aviation has repeatedly developed products and service packages which transform the state of the market to increase expectations of in-flight connectivity service standards among Business Aircraft operators.
At the time of writing, the company was closing in on the launch of its latest such disruptive product offering – its US 5G cellular ATG network, which could well be fully unveiled to the Business Aviation world at the 2022 NBAA-BACE in Orlando.
In July Gogo Business Aviation announced it had completed installation of half of the 150 cellular towers planned for the network, and was on schedule to launch the new 5G service in the second half of 2022.
The new 5G ATG network will deliver an average of 25Mb per second of in-flight broadband connectivity to each aircraft equipped with a Gogo AVANCE L5 router, and will achieve peak connectivity rates of 75-80Mb per second, according to the company.
Two months before its July announcement, however, Gogo Business Aviation had publicly revealed that, together with partners OneWeb and Hughes Network Systems, it had made significant progress in developing an even more significant airborne connectivity product offering — one which will be its first fully global broadband in-flight connectivity service.
The service will use a large network of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) communications satellites to provide satcoms-based connectivity, rather than using ATG cellular communications — as it has done until now. “We had been contemplating a global satellite solution for about three years” prior to announcing the new service, Aguirre told AvBuyer.
Determined to introduce a service that would revolutionize the market rather than just repeat what others had already achieved, the company delved deeply into researching the satcoms business, he reveals. It did so to understand what would be necessary to offer business and private aircraft operators a product that is completely new – one that is ‘market-disruptive’ in terms of signal speed, network quality, cost, and in overall Business Aviation applicability.
Gogo’s Vision — and the Challenges Arising from It
Gogo’s vision was for the product to be the first dedicated global Business Aviation connectivity service that would use avionics equipment — and particularly an antenna — small and light enough to be installed in any business aircraft anywhere, not just in Mid-size and Large Jets.
The company wanted its global broadband service for business and private aviation to be “the first system affordable enough and small enough to install in all of Business Aviation,” says Aguirre. “Our global broadband product is intended to take broadband and make it available to the 14,000 business aircraft outside North America.
“Up to now, they have had to use narrowband systems that deliver a fraction of the speed and bandwidth” that broadband satcoms offer.
According to Sergio Aguirre (pictured left), the company’s research quickly led it to conclude that in order to minimize the latency period between transmission of an onboard signal and receipt of the reply signal from the ground-based computer networks hosting the Internet and all telecoms services, it had to focus on using LEO satellites to provide the requisite broadband beams to aircraft antennas.
But the fact that any given LEO satellite is always moving in an orbit around the Earth, just as the International Space Station does, means that any specific LEO satellite would only be in sufficient range of any aircraft antenna and router to provide a continuous broadband link for a few minutes — a number in the single digits, at most.
After that, the aircraft’s antenna would have to re-focus on another LEO satellite in a different part of the sky — and a few minutes after that another one, and so on until the aircraft had completed its flight.
So, Gogo realized the antenna it chose for its global satcom broadband service could not be mechanically steered. Firstly, the very frequent need to re-steer and re-focus the antenna would quickly lead to the antenna experiencing reliability problems. And second, mechanical steering might not be able to accomplish each satellite hand-over quickly enough to prevent the broadband signal being dropped before the signal was acquired from the next satellite.
At the same time, says Aguirre, to be usable on smaller aircraft, the antenna would have to be very small and light. Its installation — along with that of the router and modem required to receive and transmit broadband-capacity digital signals — would have to be quick, easy and inexpensive, if Gogo Business Aviation is to achieve the market disruption in capability, cost and service pricing it seeks.
If those qualities are all in place, Gogo reckons aircraft owners and operators will find its Business Aviation-specific global broadband connectivity offering absolutely compelling.
Program Partner Selection
After conducting research across dozens of satellite operators and antenna manufacturers, Gogo’s next step was to develop a shortlist of likely partners in developing the product offering, Aguirre says.
And having done that, it focused on which companies in that shortlist would provide the best fit for Gogo in terms of “cultural parity”, in agreeing on the development process and goals, and the service objectives for Gogo’s planned new global broadband product.
Critically, all of the partners would have to agree on Gogo Business Aviation’s vision that, for its planned LEO-based service to be technologically and commercially feasible for all Business Aircraft, the service must make use of an Electronically Steered Array (ESA) antenna small enough to be installed on smaller aircraft, including Very Light Jets and Turboprops.
No such antenna had ever been developed to that size, and specifically for Business Aviation use, says Aguirre.
One of the critical differentiators for Gogo was its existing AVANCE LRUs (line-replaceable units), which were developed to work with ATG or satellite networks. In designing the AVANCE L3 and L5 LRUs in 2015 — which at that time were primarily used for internet and telecoms connectivity transmitted over the company’s 4G North American ATG network — the company planned to make the systems capable of also handling signals from its future 5G ATG network as well as global satcom network.
Gogo’s Partners in the Global Satcoms Network
The company soon found the culturally compatible partners it sought. OneWeb proved a compelling choice for Gogo because it was happy for Gogo to lead the entire product-development initiative and to offer Gogo wholesale broadband capacity from its 648 planned LEO satellites, rather than trying to design the broadband-connectivity service packages itself and merely seek service re-sellers.
Aguirre says this has allowed Gogo to design service packages very specifically tailored to the needs of business aircraft operators. However, other broadband satcom operators have often gone down the re-seller route, designing service-packages themselves and leaving the re-sellers with little room for service innovation and flexibility.
Gogo Business Aviation knew what it wanted and the service packages it planned to offer, according to Aguirre. From the outset its vision was for the new service to be capable of being bundled with and co-operable with its 5G US ATG network. The satcom broadband signals also had to be capable of being processed by the AVANCE routers, as are the signals from the 5G network.
These capabilities would allow customers not only to switch between — or simultaneously use both of — the two networks when operating throughout North America, but also to be able to use either the global broadband network, or the 5G ATG network, exclusively over North America if they wished. Gogo has designed its system for customers to be able to do so in seamless fashion, without dropping any signals.
They will also be able to dictate which of the two networks they wish to use as the primary signal source, and where those choices will apply. And using both networks together will increase the broadband rate to the router to speeds greater than the LEO network alone will be able to offer.
To anyone who doubts that this can be accomplished without considerable technical difficulty, Aguirre says, "We already have a use case” among certain existing customers.
Those are customers who already had Inmarsat satcom-based global capability on their Large Jets but are using AVANCE which allows them to also use Gogo’s ATG cellular network when flying over North America.
And Gogo needed to lead the LEO global-broadband system product-development effort for another key reason: It needed to be able to dictate the size and weight of the planned ESA antenna, requiring the antenna manufacturer to make installation as simple and inexpensive as possible.
“We don’t want to have a small system but a very high cost of buying and installing it,” says Aguirre. “So we didn’t design the antenna around the network’s specification. We said, this is the size of the antenna we want to build.”
For the system and service to work as Gogo Business Aviation planned, “We needed to make cost and service adjustments on the network side, we needed to make adjustments at the product-operability side, and we needed to make adjustments on the antenna side.”
The company encountered compelling serendipity which quickly allowed it to make its decision on its antenna partner. Hughes Network Systems — a subsidiary of satcoms services and systems provider EchoStar Corporation — was already working on a design for a small ESA antenna for another application unrelated to Business Aviation.
Gogo’s research revealed that Hughes had solved important power-dissipation and tip-efficiency problems with which other antenna manufacturers were struggling. And Hughes was happy to work with Gogo to develop and harden a Business Aviation-specific antenna design.
Not only was Hughes willing to incorporate the antenna modem into the antenna installation itself, thus helping Gogo simplify the aircraft-installation process and reduce its cost, but Hughes also provided the modems for OneWeb’s LEO satellite constellation, and built its global, multi-ground-station infrastructure.
Aguirre says that, as designed, the in-flight connectivity speeds offered by the broadband satcom system developed by the Gogo-Hughes-OneWeb partnership “will be superior” to the 25Mb/second average rate and the 75-80Mb/second peak speeds offered by its new 5G terrestrial ATG system.
“I personally believe it will out-perform any geostationary-satellite system now offered commercially to Business Aviation,” he says.
And, Aguirre adds, the new system’s signal latency will be far lower than that for any airborne satcom system which uses geostationary satellites positioned 25,000 miles above the Earth, which is an important point of differentiation.
Steering and re-focusing the onboard ESA antenna when handing-off from one OneWeb LEO satellite and acquiring the broadband signal from another will be accomplished in less than 50 milliseconds. However, there will be “no drop in connectivity at all” during each signal re-acquisition, according to Aguirre, because retransmission protocols in the air interface ensure there is no data packet loss.
The ESA antenna will switch beams every 11 seconds on any satellite on which it is focused and the time during which the antenna will focus on one given satellite before it goes out of range and the beam has to hand over to the next satellite will be about three minutes, he says.
The new global broadband system is specifically “designed to fit on virtually any size business aircraft,” he says. If the aircraft is already fitted with an AVANCE LRU, installation is simple – it requires the antenna to be mounted on the fuselage, which includes the integrated ESA antenna/modem/RF converter unit, and installation of two cables: a power cable to the antenna to provide 28V DC power, and an Ethernet cable from the antenna to the AVANCE LRU.
The only required change to the AVANCE router is a software upgrade, notes Aguirre. The antenna steering system does not make use of aircraft-positioning data, so is not reliant on ADS-B or GPS avionics.
Gogo has designed its forthcoming global broadband connectivity system and services so that customers’ flight departments will have considerable flexibility in how they configure the distribution of signals to the aircraft cabin, and in configuring whether or not to use — and even whether to buy service packages allowing use of — both the ATG and the satcom network.
Should a customer’s flight department want to limit broadband capacity to offer more capacity to certain individual passengers — e.g. the CEO or video meeting host — the systems controls will allow them to do so easily. “The customer can set up the network any way they want,” Aguirre says.
“This provides flexibility for the flight department to configure the cabin to use the most affordable network available, with the greatest [signal] redundancy, and without a cost penalty.”
Product Launch Timing
Earlier this year, Gogo and its partners publicly revealed their forthcoming new global broadband LEO satcom service for Business Aviation, noting at that point that OneWeb had already launched 428 of the 648 LEO communications satellites which are intended to comprise the full constellation.
OneWeb had originally planned to launch the remaining 220 LEO satellites by Year-End 2023, but Aguirre says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted that schedule. Subsequently, OneWeb has now re-scheduled and re-booked the booster launches for all of the remaining satellites, and appears to be targeting completion of all the satellite launches by Q2 2024.
The amended launch-completion timeframe can be derived from Aguirre’s statement to AvBuyer that Gogo Business Aviation is now hoping to launch its new global broadband-connectivity service in Q4 2024.
Aguirre also reveals that OneWeb is planning to eventually launch a second-generation constellation of LEO communications satellites, replacing the first constellation.
Aguirre does not estimate a time frame on the second-generation satellite launches, but says that, although signals transmitted using Gogo’s broadband-satcom system will not be bounced from one satellite to another to reach the nearest ground-station in the least-possible time, the second-generation satellites will be designed to bounce signals among satellites to speed the transmission process.
More information from https://gogoair.com