- 16 Feb 2023
- Brian Wilson
- Jet Connectivity
After GEO-based jet connectivity systems allowed Business Aviation to provide near seamless connectivity for its users, a new challenger is emerging in the form of LEO. What’s the difference, and which is better? Brian Wilson gives an overview for you to decide...
Like a sanctioned bout between two prize fighters, the manufacturers of GEO and LEO satellite systems are about to step into the ring. With Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites in one corner and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in the other, we’re about to discover which is better in the cabin connectivity arena.
Although there is competition between the manufacturers of current GEO-based systems, they have not had a technological challenge as current competitors. SwiftBroadBand and Iridium are more suited for safety services and voice calls.
GEOs only serve the upper echelons of Business Aviation – the airframes that can support a tail mounted system and owners/operators that have the budget required for these expensive investments. Primarily, GEOs are suited for Super Mid-Size Jets and larger.
LEOs will open the door for most airframes with the introduction of fuselage-mounted Electronically Steered Antennas (ESAs). The likelihood is that you’ve been exposed to LEO technology before but didn't know it. Companies such as One Web, Amazon, and Starlink have all been launching satellites from Florida and Kazakhstan (before the Russia-Ukraine war).
Most LEO systems will be ready for prime time beginning in 2024. Will GEOs or LEOs be better, ultimately, though? Let's break down the two technologies to help you decide...
These stationary satellites are positioned 22,300 miles above the earth at the equator and are programmed to match the speed of the earth’s rotation, thereby staying ‘stationary’ in a fixed position.
Usually, GEO constellations consist of only three satellites that are designed to remain in orbit for 15-20 years (the number of satellites that can be maintained in geostationary orbits without possible conflict is limited because the orbital zone is an extremely narrow ring in the plane of the equator).
Costing over a billion dollars each, GEO satellites are the size of a double decker bus and weigh more than seven tons. Each of these massive orbiters transmits a beam covering about one-third of the globe. Corresponding beams overlap with each other to cover most of the earth.
These constellations not only serve aviation but are also focused on maritime and wireless customers around the world. Because there’s only one satellite per region, any failure or malfunction would result in no coverage for a substantial period.
Back in April of 2019, the propulsion system used to position a satellite malfunctioned. After three weeks of trying to save and recover the spacecraft, it was considered a total loss which affected coverage for customers. Large commercial communications satellites typically take two to three years to build and launch.
Nevertheless, GEO constellations have proved quite reliable in providing a valued service to users. Initial data speeds were in the 10-15Mbps range, but have transitioned to nearer 25-30Mbps today. These rates can accommodate multiple connected devices, and support Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), document downloads, cloud uploads and video conferencing on today’s business jets.
Once the next generation of satellites are launched, positioned into place and tested, GEO system providers claim data speeds of more than 100Mbps will be possible.
The name Low Earth Orbit refers to the satellite’s proximity to the ground. LEO satellites orbit between 350 and 500 miles above the earth, 50 times closer than traditional GEO satellites. Latency, the time it takes for data to pass from one point on a network to another, will be reduced by a factor of x15.
LEO satellites are constantly moving in and out of range, and therefore require many orbiters. For example, One Web plans to have close to 650 in orbit when it launches in 2024. And Amazon and Starlink will both have over 1,000 satellites in their constellations.
One Web is primarily focused on the aviation community, whereas Amazon and Starlink have a business model based on aviation, maritime and wireless coverage for the general population. The large number of satellites would allow for a quick repositioning of a back-up satellite should a failure occur.
LEO satellites are much smaller in size (about the size of a small car) and can be built at a fraction of the cost of a GEO satellite. The smaller size allows 10-20 satellites to be launched by a single rocket, and their life expectancy is just five years. Curiously, the shorter lifespan could be viewed as a benefit since evolving technology can be quickly applied to the new replacement satellites.
Unlike the GEO constellation which covers most of the earth and 90% of the aviation routes, LEOs will cover the entire earth surface, including the polar regions and 100% of the aviation routes.
Data rates are expected to launch with aggregate speeds of 50-100Mpbs (or more) and will quickly accelerate by two or three times within the first few years of operations (One Web, Amazon and Starlink have all published second-generation speeds of 200-300Mbps).
These data rates, when combined with the substantial reduction in latency, will allow users to expect download speeds that rival a terrestrial connection.
In addition to the anticipated speed advantage over GEOs, the cost of installation and the downtime to perform the upgrades promise to be substantially less. New electronically steered antenna (ESA) technology will be a paradigm shift from mechanically steered antennas used today.
ESAs have no moving parts and can be installed on the top of the fuselage. The typical size will be 22 inches in length, 10 inches wide and less than two inches in height. Finally, affordable satellite communications with sufficient data speeds will become available to Mid-Size Jet owners and even some Light Jet owners.
And since all the components are included in the assembly, for those aircraft that have compatible hardware, associated wiring could simply consist of power and a coax cable.
Now that the two jet connectivity opponents have stepped into their respective corners and their profiles have been defined, it’s time for business aircraft owners and operators to decide whether to go with the reigning standard or wait a year to try out the new challenger.
GEOs have the right to stand proud. There are over one thousand Super Mid-Size and Large Jets outfitted with a GEO solution, and feedback has been positive.
These systems are meeting their passengers’ expectations, and the companies that build and support the products and networks are financially sound.
What’s very clear is that the hardware and installation costs of LEO solutions will be lower, and the downtime will be reduced too. A potential market disruptor could be on the horizon which will be healthy in propelling the entirety of Business Aviation connectivity into the future needs of its users.
The proof, of course, is in the pudding. The onus is on LEO providers to demonstrate and achieve the data speeds they are telling the industry they can deliver. The time draws close for talk on both sides of the ring to stop.
Will the LEO providers have the clout they claim, or are they punching above their weight? Take a ringside seat, and let the fight commence!
Read more about Cabin Electronics on AvBuyer