A Review of SwiftBroadband and Ground-Based Connectivity
Jet cabin connectivity isn’t a choice in today’s Business Aviation world – passengers expect it. Andre Fodor shares his findings on jet connectivity types, and provides some tips on managing the costs to keep within budget…
While recently configuring a new wireless network at home, part of the process required me to run a report that identified how many devices were connected to it. To my surprise there were no less than 17 pieces of hardware using data from that connection.
Mobile phones, TVs, computers, security cameras - even the lawn sprinkler system required a connection. The reality is that just about every device now requires connectivity in our homes, offices, social interactions – and of course airplanes.
On the ground we have learned to expect fast and seamless voice, text and data, and that expectation understandably extends to the multi-million-dollar business aircraft.
The reality is that fast data access often comes up short of those expectations in the arena of Business Aviation
That limitation might be because of hardware constraints, technology advancements, or a decision by the user to seek less expensive (and less capable) solutions. Fast global connection in the form of Ku- and Ka-band access is available at correspondingly higher cost. We'll consider these later, but for many Business Aviation users two other options may be sufficient.
For the last decade, the de-facto choice for worldwide data connectivity has been SwiftBroadBand (SBB), typically configured on a duo system providing telephony and data connections.
Due to the bandwidth availability, compression and data transfer advancements - as well as restrictions on aircraft antenna size - many users would consider SBB to be ‘slow internet’, better suited for small data exchange (i.e. texting and e-mails with small file attachments). Load the system with large data block exchanges or multiple users and the connection slows to a trickle.
SBB will work most efficiently under the full beam shadow of the satellite’s coverage, and there are regions where orbital positioning will prevent connectivity altogether.
Hardware and software advances have improved data compression and exchange as well as error correction in an attempt to maximize data flow and speed of the system, but pricing is high. In addition to hardware installation, data rates average between USD$6-9 per megabyte, depending on your data package.
To put that cost into perspective, opening the splash page of either Yahoo or Google would potentially set you back $45 because of its size. Monthly bills hovering around $40k are not unheard-of when the system is the aircraft’s sole accessibility pathway to the internet.
With the per-megabyte prices detailed above, filtering and blocking becomes imperative. You will need to prevent devices from performing software updates, along with large data transfers while this satellite network is being used.
In the US there is an alternative option known as Ground-Based Connectivity. Through a combination of hardware, software and multiple on-board antennas that connect the aircraft to upwards beaming antenna sites, Ground Based Connectivity creates a pathway to the internet. Its coverage, however, is dependent of the existence of a large network of ground-based receivers.
The aircraft’s hardware is typically available through STCs for just about any business jet at a cost of approximately $120k, and installation downtime will typically last around three weeks.
Ground-Based Connectivity uses the backbone of the regular ground-based mobile phone network, and via tailored hardware creates data-beams for aircraft usage. The software tracks signal strengths and handshakes with the data transfer between different ground stations. Within my Flight Department, thanks to the advancement of compression software and upgraded routers, we have recently experienced truly reliable VoIP phone calls.
Ground-Based Connectivity does come with a caveat, however: Due to bandwidth constraints, this system will effectively ‘throttle back’ your connection speed after a certain amount of data has been used in an attempt to manage overall network efficiency.
In addition, speed is dependent on the number of users connected aboard the aircraft, and how many aircraft are sharing the same air-to-ground connection at that time. A good analogy might be the afternoon rush hour on the highway. The more cars, the slower the flow of traffic.
With that being said, in the US, air-to-ground internet can provide a less costly internet experience that closely emulates ground-based speeds. Pricing ranges around $3k-$5k per month, depending on the data plan you choose. Service expansion is expected in Europe in the future.
Obviously, Ground-Based Connectivity does not, nor will it in the future, provide connectivity over oceans and over land masses where the ground infrastructure has not been developed.
Mix and Match
Not uncommonly, larger business jets will have both SBB and Ground-Based Connectivity installed. The service is then optimized to prioritize Ground-Based access whenever available, and automatically switch to SBB otherwise. My flight department manually manages this switching to help prevent the usage of SBB for trivial internet access (thereby skewing our annual connectivity budget).
Without question, fast airborne internet is conditional to the growth of our industry. Being connected has become an essential part of flying in a business aircraft, complementing and enhancing the time spent airborne. The modern office (or home) in the sky requires a strong and reliable internet connection to validate its case and strengthen the viability of our business model.
We will continue our discussion next month, as we explore what equates to the best jet connectivity system for your aircraft, the add-on options available, and how to plan for the installation process. Stay Connected!