Understanding In-Flight Connectivity: An Overview

Are you looking to explore the basics of in-Flight Connectivity? Brian Wilson provides answers to some of the common questions to help develop an understanding of the area of in-flight cabin connectivity (IFC)…

Brian Wilson  |  08th June 2021
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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 businesswoman with laptop smiles aboard a private jet

    Working as Key Accounts Director at Gogo Business Aviation, I come across a multitude of questions from Business Aviation owners and operators interested in exploring in-flight connectivity.

    The following paragraphs highlight some of those questions, and provide answers…

    1. What is the difference between In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) and In-Flight Entertainment (IFE)?

    Utilizing on-board hardware and external antennas, In-Flight Connectivity depends on the aircraft’s ability to stay connected during all phases of the flight – whether to ground-based towers, or to satellites.

    IFC allows everyone to stay current with what is going on in the world, and with family and friends. If at any time the connection is severed, or the bandwidth is diminished, the passengers on-board the aircraft will quickly begin to feel alienated from the rest of the world.

    In contrast, In-Flight Entertainment uses a different set of hardware on board the aircraft, and in most cases is not reliant on any external source.

    The typical configuration of a single or dual media source and a moving map has not changed over the years – only the components. In many cases, with IFE, passengers are limited to their sources of entertainment, but they don’t have to rely on a data connection or bandwidth.

    2. How much does In-Flight Connectivity cost?

    In-Flight Connectivity comes with an ancillary cost – the monthly data service plan, which can exceed hardware installation costs within just a few years.

    The monthly data rates are hard to understand for many owners and operators, and choosing the wrong one could result in a nasty surprise when the bill arrives at the end of the month. Although some service providers do have a fixed, unlimited data usage plan, most are not applicable for today’s systems – which can stream content to the aircraft.

    Streaming plans come with a fixed amount of data. Once the threshold is exceeded, clients are exposed to overage charges.

    Ground-based systems: Can cost from as little as a few hundred dollars per month, all the way up to a non-streaming, unlimited data plan of $4,345 per month. Streaming plans range between $4k and $5k per month, with an additional overage fee that is charged per megabyte (Mb).

    For Light Jets and Turboprops, there are hourly plans that range from $39 to $99 per hour. These systems typically have limited bandwidth for data and are non-streaming. These tend to be ideal for owner/operator situations, and aircraft that typically carry limited numbers of passengers.

    Satellite systems: These range from a low point of a few thousand dollars per month, up to over $30,000 per month. Swift BroadBand (SBB) still offers a cost per Mb plan, however Ka- and Ku-Band satellite systems can stream live content. Most offer numerous pricing options, each coming with a set amount of data.

    3. How fast does data download in-flight?

    One of the most common questions pertaining to IFC is how fast the data will download. This is a viable question, but there are many variables that impact the difference between the data rates stated by the service provider and what passengers usually experience. These include:

    • How far is the aircraft from the ground-station or the satellite?
    • How many aircraft are flying in that sector?
    • How many passengers are aboard each aircraft?
    • What are the usage patterns of the passengers?

    Imagine, for a moment, sitting at an airport or your local coffee shop. If you are the only one there, the Wi-Fi tends to be very quick. Once the shop or terminal fills up with people, the Wi-Fi slows down.

    Aboard the aircraft, streaming movies from your Netflix account or performing a FaceTime or Skype video call will require at least 3-4 Mbps. That is for one stream to one passenger. Two streams would need 6-8 Mbps, and three or more, 10 Mbps or more.

    Naturally, you can expect the amount of demand on the IFC at any one time to impact the speed.

    4. How can I set true expectations for my passengers?

    Once your passengers know there is in-flight connectivity aboard the aircraft, they will expect an experience equal to what they have on the ground. In most cases this is not going to happen for everyone on board.

    To avoid unwanted frustration, it is necessary do some research so you can set true expectations among the passengers. To assist with this, answers to the following questions will help:

    • What type of IFC system is installed on your aircraft?
    • Is it the latest offering from the vendor?
    • Is it a ‘domestic-only’ product, or does it work internationally? (Provide a global coverage map for the passengers to make this clear.)
    • What are the maximum, the average, and the minimum data speeds?
    • Are the data rates enough to offer streaming?

    Sending email with attachments varies, based on the type of file you’re sending. Word and Excel documents tend to work very well, but if you send documents with heavy graphics or PowerPoint presentations, early-generation IFC systems and SBB will take additional time to download them.

    Even if the system offers streaming capabilities, there could be limitations to how many concurrent streams the bandwidth could handle before buffering occurs (see the above café example).

    During product design phase, vendors do extensive lab- and flight-testing to understand the limitations of their connectivity solutions. Ask the vendor to provide the results of their testing so you have a true measure of the performance.

    Finally, after gathering the information, schedule a meeting with the crew and passengers so they all have realistic expectations before boarding the aircraft. If the system is installed on a charter aircraft with many different passengers, put a laminated brochure with usage examples and a coverage map at every seat.

    With these bases covered, you will have a basic understanding of In-Flight Connectivity. Broaden your knowledge by speaking to individual hardware and software vendors, and reading more AvBuyer Jet Connectivity articles.

    Or, for the latest Cabin Electronics articles, answers to your FAQs, quick tips and more, visit the Cabin Electronics for Private Planes hub.

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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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