Having fast communications to the cabin, is an essential tool on board todays private aircraft. There are numerous choices for the services, technology and hardware. Options include varying degrees of bandwidth from satellite networks or air-to-ground services, coverage areas, security levels, operational features and the all-important terminals, antennas, routers and wireless access points. This article walks through the services, the providers, the equipment and considerations for choosing the best option.
Before getting into all the options, let's cover a few key questions you need to answer before embarking on selection decisions. Most of the people we talked to, said the main areas to focus are:
- How much bandwidth do I need?
- Geographically, where do I need it?
- What are my budget considerations?
- How important is security to me?
In answering the first of these it clearly depends on what you want to do. The technology is getting to the stage where you can do everything from make phone calls, potentially using your own phone, connect into the office Virtual Private Network (VPN), to video conferencing and streaming TV or movies.
This whole aviation connectivity sector has really grown, and is on the cusp of another big transition, as you'll see below. "Connectivity was small until Swift Broadband came along in 2009" said David Stanley, VP Satcom at Rockwell Collins. "There's an interesting awakening to the potential of connectivity, with some new players coming along. It's a really exciting time to be in," he added.
All the aircraft OEM's offer hardware options for their planes depending on airframe size, range and customer mission needs. Connectivity services are also available through resellers such as Satcom Direct, AirInc Direct, Satcom1 and SITA OnAir.
Currently Available Connectivity Services & Providers
|Inmarsat||Satellite||Swift Broadband||up to 432kbps|
|Iridium||Satellite||Cockpit and cabin services||2.4 kbit|
|Gogo||Air to Ground||Gogo Biz||3 Mbps|
The current Swift Broadband (SBB) service is widely used and provides pretty much global coverage (see map directly below), except for over the polar regions. Speeds are up to 432 kbps using a high-gain antenna (HGA), with slower speeds using intermediate or low gain antennas. This service also provides cockpit safety services critical for meeting airspace regulatory mandates.
SBB's predecessor, which is also still widely used, is Swift 64 - a circuit-switched, Mobile ISDN service. This can provide up to 256kbps by bonding 4 communications channels together.
The Yonder Ku band service offers speeds of up to 2 Mbps. The fastest speeds are available over North America, Europe and parts of Asia/Pacific. This service is in several hundred large cabin business jets such as Gulfstream 450s and larger, and Challenger 350s and larger. No safety services now or expected in the future.
The service with the largest uptake in North America is Gogo Biz. It has seen the fastest adoption among the connectivity options and Gogo solutions are now on 6,800 business aircraft. NetJets US Fleet, XOJet, WheelsUp and a number of managed fleets have it on their aircraft. "It's on everything from the Citation M2, and Mustangs to (Bombardier) Globals and G650s" said John Wade, EVP and GM of Gogo Biz. No safety services now or expected in the future. The Gogo Biz coverage area is shown below.
With a truly global footprint, Iridium can be valuable for worldwide voice and text services. But the low bandwidth means that it is not as useful for always on applications and connectivity. This service also provides safety services.
The C- and Ku-band satellite solutions from Intelsat are provided through reseller partners. No safety services now or expected in the future.
Soon to Be Available Services
|Inmarsat||Satellite||Global Xpress (GX)||up to 50 Mbps|
|Viasat||Satellite||Exede Ka||70 to 100 Mbps to the aircraft; 12 Mbps peak per device|
|Iridium||Satellite||Iridium NEXT||L-band up to 1.5 Mbps and Ka-Band up to 8 Mbps|
|Gogo||Air to Ground||Gogo Biz 4G||Up to 9.8 Mbps|
|SmartSky||Air to Ground||SmartSky||4G LTE-based network|
As we approach the end of 2015 and enter 2016, we're on somewhat of an inflexion point with quite a bit of new technology coming online. The aviation connectivity world is moving to speeds of multi Mbs. "This means we'll be able to bring streaming to the cabin" said Ken Bantoft CTO for Satcom Direct.
So, if you're not happy with available solutions today, "wait a year to consider new technologies" said Paul LaFata, CEO at Jet Support 360 Advisors. He further stated "the impetus behind the rapid pace of change? Operator demand for bandwidth, regulatory airspace mandates, and new hardware and services opportunities. Additionally, we're seeing more robust competition for the entire continuum of offerings."
The new services include:
The third satellite in the Inmarsat-5 Global Xpress constellation had a successful launch at the end of August and is now being brought into service. These three satellites give global coverage and a fourth satellite is in development as a backup and for additional capacity. The first Global Xpress satellite, I-5 F1, launched in December 2013 and entered commercial service in July 2014. It provides the Global Xpress services for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The second satellite, I-5 F2, launched in February 2015 and delivers the Global Xpress services in the Americas and the Atlantic Ocean Region. I-5 F3 will cover the Pacific Ocean Region.
These satellites operating in the Ka band, with a combination of fixed narrow spot beams that enable Inmarsat to deliver higher speeds through more compact terminals, plus steerable beams so that additional capacity can be directed in real-time to where it's needed.
Inmarsat Chairman Andrew Sukawaty noted that "Aviation is our fastest-growing sector." While Kurt Weidemeyer, Vice President of Aviation added, "Once we have the network, we expect to be amazed at who connects, who uses it and how the data use explodes."
The current Exede Ka band service covers the US from their own Viasat 1 satellite, and a Ka band service over Europe is provided in partnership with Eutelsat. The next satellite, Viasat 2, is due to launch in 2016, and will expand the coverage area over Central America, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and North Atlantic (see the coverage map directly below).
"We expect to get the whole system certified by the first quarter of 2016. We'll start with Gulfstreams and add Bombardier, Boeing BBJ, Cessna, Dassault and Embraer shortly after." said James Person, Viasat's Director of Global Business Development.
ViaSat also provides the Ka band service to commercial airlines such as JetBlue, the 737 fleet at United and El Al in Europe.
The new Iridium NEXT service will be provided by a constellation of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites which are scheduled for 8 launches through 2017. While the service will only provide bandwidths of up to 1.5 Mbs, it will be low cost and requires just a very small antenna. Essentially the antenna fits on anything and the package includes safety services.
The next generation Intelsat EpicNG high performance satellites are due for launch starting in 2016. The company is also partnering with OneWeb and their forthcoming Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, which are estimated to be available in 2019. This will provide a truly global Ku band broadband service, which promises no latency. EpicNG will use focused spot beams in key aviation routes to meet customers' high-throughput and performance needs.
This new company has been formed by a veteran team of aviation, wireless and telecoms professionals. Their plan is to build a 4G LTE based advanced air-to-ground network for business aviation. The company is working with Cessna, Satcom Direct and others to test and then roll out service. The plans aim for a beta-launch of SmartSky 4G in late 2015, followed by the rollout of nationwide commercial service in 2016.
Gogo Biz 4G is a specially-designed application of Gogo's latest air-to-ground technology. The service is due to be available at the beginning of 2017, with service coverage in the continental U.S. and portions of Alaska and Canada. This new service is expected to have peak speeds of 9.8 Mbps. Gogo will be offering "loyalty programs with significant trade-in incentives," for existing customers who want to trade up to the new service.
Hardware and Equipment
Whichever service meets your requirements there are usually a variety of hardware choices that operate with the service. The main hardware includes terminals, routers and antennas, and may also include handsets. The good news here is "aircraft can be retrofit to take advantage of the new hardware and services solutions" said Paul LaFata. He went on to say "aircraft OEMs have done a very good job of evaluating solutions to meet their customer's expectations and operational needs, and they tend to be on top of changing trends." Some of the leading equipment manufacturers include Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Cobham, Cobel, TrueNorth and Thales.
As an example for twins, turboprops and small jets the Honeywell BendixKing AeroWave 100 connects through a low-gain antenna to provide speeds up to 104 Kbps. As a broad rule, Honeywell recommends that no more than 3/4 devices are connected at once. The issue here, is the more devices connected, the slower the connection speeds due to bandwidth capacity consumption.
"The platform is aimed at the owner operator, for instance of a TBM, Pilatus or Mustang", said Jeff Kauffman, Honeywell Product Manager, "The service is good for email (with attachments), messaging and apps, but has limits and does not allow streaming so Netflix and You Tube are blocked on the ground and wouldn't be positive anyway." Hardware pricing is $23,499. The service is a prepaid fixed price with a 50 hour package for $1,999 equivalent to $40 per hour.
"One of our customers bought a Citation M2 and had an AeroWave system installed. He flew all the way to Africa and was still able to connect to his business," noted Jeff Kauffman. "He found that the best connectivity in the remote parts of Africa, was on his plane."
The Honeywell Aspire 200 line connects to the Swift Broadband service. There are a choice of three antennas for the system, a low gain, an intermediate gain and a high gain. The high gain antenna can provide data rates of up to 432 kbps, but is the largest of the three and so takes up the most space.
Ku and Ka satellite service currently require a 12 inch antenna disc, which usually goes under the radome in the tail. As a result these services tend to go on larger aircraft. As the new hi speed satellite services role out over the coming years they will initially be available for larger aircraft, purely because the antenna are quite large. The good news, is that there are several companies working on improving the antenna technology to shrink the profile, and make them small enough to fit on light and mid-size aircraft.
On the telephony side, the "GlobalVT" service from Satcom Direct lets passengers use their own mobile number while on the plane. Passengers just need the GlobalVT app on their android or iphone, which then works over the cabin wifi from the Satcom Direct Router (SDR) (Pictured below). The equipment effectively creates an on-board mobile phone cell. The big benefit of this "Global VT" service is that "anyone can get hold of you on your mobile," said Satcom Direct Chief Commercial Officer International, Chris Moore. The price of the unit is about $35,000. "We've invested in technology on the ground so you don't have to worry about roaming agreements, so we're effectively a mobile operator," said Ken Bantoft, CTO, adding "People want their phone to work on the plane with their own address book and their own phone number."
A similar product is the Simphone Mobile GSM from TrueNorth. This lets passengers and crew talk and text inflight, with their own phones. In this case no extra apps are required, but there may be roaming charges.
The Optelity Cabin Gateway also from TrueNorth is a router platform offered as four configurable packages. Features range from simple voice capabilities to full-on office capabilities-including popular telephony applications, 3G mobile communications services, and Wi-Fi. Optelity Wi-Fi, the product line's base model, starts at $24,995. Newer platforms like this are app-based, with changes in functionality being defined via software. This makes it easier to upgrade the systems because no new hardware is needed.
For mid-size and larger aircraft there may be 2 or even 3 different systems on board. New smart routers can manage all the networks supplying bandwidth to the aircraft. So that inside the plane there appears to be just one network with one SSID ("service set identifier" that uniquely names a wireless local area network). "Passengers just want the fastest possible service," said Ken Bantoft of Satcom Direct " and routers can be specced to always pick up the fastest available service."
As just a few examples, combinations of service technologies can include:
- Ku and L Band
- Ka and L band
- Ka and ATG
- L Band and ATG
These smart routers can be configured to allow:
- Bandwidth allocation, for instance so that 1 person, such as the principal, has most of the bandwidth and the pilot may get a smaller amount
- Automated service switching, which can help keep costs down by automatically switching to the best available service.
"New routers also have GSM built in so that you can use a 3G or 4G cell signal", David Stanley VP Satcom, Rockwell Collins, "you simply put a SIM card in and this is usually the least cost routing."
When you're considering routers be aware that smart routers are agnostic and will choose the best service available, but others are proprietary and lock you into a service provider. For instance the Gogo platform can provide this network flexibility. "We offer a free swift broadband terminal" said John Wade of Gogo " with transparent switchover from one network to the other."
Aircraft Operator Insights
We spoke to one fleet manager who operates five Gulfstream G550's. Each aircraft is similarly equipped with both Gogo Biz and Swift Broadband.
Most of his corporate passengers come on the plane with their iphone, android phone or tablets. These passengers want to have the same experience as in their home or office. One of the challenges he pointed out was that most of these devices, and many of the apps on them, are constantly doing background auto-updates which can consume quite a bit of bandwidth. So he has the routers set to present a splash page to logon to the planes network. Each device is on for 45 minutes but will then log off if it's not being used. There are also router settings to prevent data transfer in the background, so cutting down on this automated traffic.
John Peterson, Director Product Development at Satcom Direct said that these "program updates, app updates, synchronization programs, and other automatic processes can comprise up to 30% of your data activity." Its SkyShield application can block the background updates for their customers and do this at the ground stations to reduce the background traffic and provide higher performing connections.
The G550 operator noted that the Gogo system works well in the USA but is limited to the USA and also limited to above 10,000 feet. He also noted that as Gogo keep on increasing their market share, he's had issues with the service slowing down on the East Coast. So their aircraft use Swift Broadband on East Coast flights. "Two other operators I've spoken to say they configure to Swift on the East Coast," he added.
With Swift Broadband his passengers find it good for email, but if they pull in large files it may not be such a good experience. He generally recommends that they do not use a shared file on the aircraft but instead do any updates before or after the plane ride. "The Swift issue is that current data transfer rates are slow, but it is global and pretty reliable" he stated. This operator also noted that if passengers use a VPN it can take up 50% of the bandwidth and so slows down other users.
In most large corporations the Aviation and IT departments will work closely on any aspects of the connectivity, so that corporate IT standards can be applied to the aircraft, in the same way they are applied to other locations. But, as David Stanley of Rockwell Collins pointed out, it's still the Aviation Director of Maintenance (and not the IT guys) who receives the call to explain why the internet is not working, with the boss is on his way and 10 minutes to go before take-off. So it's key that all the equipment and services are very reliable.
If you're looking to upgrade your cabin connectivity, the main advice we heard from numerous people was to not build for current requirements. Instead, really future-proof your cabin and expect the growth of data transfer requirements to be non-linear. In the table at the top of this article, you'll see that the new services that are rolling out over the next year or so will offer significantly higher bandwidths.
Downloading large email attachments and streaming video are becoming base expectations. At another level if the CEO does multi-site video conferencing in their office, then they are likely to want to do it from the aircraft as well.
Other considerations include where you are flying. Using an air-to-ground network is fine if all your flights are over land, but ATG won't work over Oceans, so do you need to consider alternate or supplemental providers.
Looking ahead for when you sell your aircraft, the JetNet database now shows both basic connectivity and also hi speed data. So potential buyers can put this in as a criteria, to search for suitably equipped planes. John Wade EVP and GM at Gogo Biz said that nowadays "if a plane doesn't have connectivity it won't sell." He added that he knows off at least one aviation lender, who puts in connectivity when they have an aircraft come off lease and before they sell it. Their view is that it's just so much easier to sell with the latest connectivity.
According to Satcom Direct, five years ago flight department at Fortune 500 companies had nothing to do with the IT department. Nowadays, they work together to make sure that IT policies can be applied on the aircraft. Policies can cover encryption, secured tunneling, dedicated line services and all other security aspects.
Some US companies want to make sure that their all data goes via US ground stations. So providers such as Satcom Direct have data centers in both the US and in Europe. This can be particularly important if you are affected by the different privacy laws in the various jurisdictions.
If your travels take you through Chinese or Russian airspace, you need to be aware of the rules that apply. All data traffic that leaves the aircraft must go via a ground station in China or Russia respectively. In other words the Chinese and Russians will have access to anything you send. The latest on board routers will warn you before entering this air space, so that you can be sure to not transmit any sensitive or proprietary data.
The major service providers typically have good security. For instance on the Gogo network, the links from the plane to the ground are all encrypted. Clients can run their own VPN and some government aircraft run full grade military spec. encryption. Gogo don't even show the aircraft tail numbers in their network operations center. Similarly on the Viasat network the communications are encrypted and clients can run their own VPN.
There's still some way to go to get everyone on board with secure networks. David Stanley of Rockwell Collins suggested doing a simple test at the static display at NBAA or your local FBO and simply looking for open, unsecure wi-fi networks that would be broadcast from the routers on some aircraft. So give it a try, see if your aircraft are broadcasting their SSID but don't require a password to access the network.
What do the Services Cost?
Prices have changed significantly from the early days of aircraft communications systems. In the days of Swift 64 - a sort of dial up access for aircraft - the access rates could run $8 to $10 per minute. The equipment was also expensive, in the region of 300k/$400k.
Today at Viasat , the access plans are one flat rate per month, making them predictable and easy for budgeting. They start at $5,000/month and go up to $10,000/month. For fractional and charter operators, there are plans by the hour so that they can pass on the costs to their customers. As an indicator Viasat told us that they see typical Ku customers using about 5 GB/month. 4 years ago this would have been about 1 Gb/month. In comparison commercial aviation customers can easily use 5 Gb in one flight across country.
There are six bands of pricing for Gogo based on the amount of data you use each month. Pricing starts with a "pay-as-you-go" plan, then the next level is just $395 per month for 60MB of data and going up to $3,995 for unlimited data. Each plan has an overage charge if you go over your data allocation and all plans keep the speed the same.
The Gogo equipment is about $35,000 and installation is typically similar to this. Financing is available starting at about $1,500 a month which includes the gear, install and certification. So for under $2,000 per month you can get set up and running.
Swift Broadband also has several tiers of pricing from a pay as you go model at about $6.99 per MB to 3.2 GB for over $13,000/month.
Make sure your plan fits your needs. I did hear one story of a passenger watching a live soccer match while flying transatlantic. The final cost, $30,000, because he was being charged per Mb.
So to summarize all the above, if you're looking at communications services and equipment, then start by asking yourself the questions:
- What aircraft will it go in?
- Will it be the first Supplemental Type Certificate in this aircraft type? Has the equipment installer installed this system before in this aircraft type?
- Will I fly just domestic or have international trips as well?
- What do I want to do with the connectivity?
- Will my passenger's data and devices be secure?
- What options and level of support does my service provider offer?
As a next step, look at the different network services, including their geographic footprints, their bandwidth, equipment features and sizes and prices. Then as you narrow down the choice, look at the hardware options for each service provider that would work for you. If you want to know what you can do with many of these newer services and increasing bandwidth, read our earlier article on Cabin Management Systems.
If you are not knowledgable in these systems and services consider bringing in a consultant that can do the research and provide you with the best cost analysis and options for your cabin and cockpit communication mission requirements.
Over the next few years the new services will let you do so much more in the cabin. Make sure you're ready.