SwiftBroadband will offer DSL-like service in 2006

 - July 24, 2007, 9:36 AM

It’s a small world, after all, and the one-two combination of a business airplane and an Internet connection for the cabin can make it seem even smaller. That is one of the reasons Inmarsat has decided to invest $1.6 billion as part of the development of its next-generation satellite data service, known as SwiftBroadband, which the London-based company said will provide DSL-like connection speeds for business jet and airline passengers flying almost anywhere in the world.

Inmarsat is now building the new I4 satellites for the service in Toulouse, France. During a user conference in Montreal in June, the company announced that SwiftBroadband is the new name for the service formerly known as BGAN (for broadband global area network), which is planned as a rival to other high-speed satellite data services.

The company plans to launch the first two I4 satellites next year, with a third satellite planned for launch over the Pacific Ocean offering worldwide SwiftBroadband coverage by mid-2006, when the service is expected to be made available to aviation users.

SwiftBroadband is designed to operate with existing Swift64 hardware (Inmarsat’s current high-speed-data satcom service), meaning buyers of current receivers and antennas will need software updates to access the faster data service when it becomes available, but can continue flying with the same hardware that is on the airplane now after software updates are made.

A single channel of SwiftBroadband will allow users to connect to the Internet at speeds of 432 kbps per channel, compared with the 64-kbps channel rate of Swift64. Avionics manufacturers are already planning multi-channel SwiftBroadband upgrades that will allow passengers to bond two channels for a combined data rate as high as 864 kbps.

According to Inmarsat marketing manager Simon Tudge, most of the technology needed to make the higher data rates possible resides in the I4 satellites, which are much larger (about the size of a city bus) and 60 times more powerful than Inmarsat’s current I3 satellites. SwiftBroadband will use 228 individual spot beams per satellite, which can be turned on and off as aircraft enter each beam, enhancing their efficiency. The satellites feature larger power supplies than current-generation I3 satellites, as well as their own digital signal processors, making them some of the most sophisticated (and biggest) communications satellites ever launched, Tudge said.

The next big growth area for airborne data services will be with the airlines, which have recently begun adding some hardware for trials. Lufthansa this spring became the first airline to introduce high-speed Internet access on some flights, but it is using Boeing Connexion, a rival to Inmarsat’s planned broadband service.

Traffic has been steadily picking up in recent months, with this summer shaping up to be the busiest since 9/11. Inmarsat predicts the trend will continue, and that should open the door to more in-flight connectivity as airlines look for ways to set themselves apart from their competitors.

Pricing for SwiftBroadband service has yet to be announced, but airlines think they can set up a fee structure that will be acceptable for the typical passenger in economy or business class. Figures that have been talked about would put the price for in-flight Web surfing at about $25 or $30 for the duration of a flight, which is comparable to what is being charged today for Swift64 access.

In essence, SwiftBroadband is really two networks in one, in that it can simultaneously support voice and ISDN service, as well as packet data. Yet SwiftBroadband will provide an “always on” connection, similar to DSL. But the real beauty of SwiftBroadband is that it will link up with the same antennas and high-power amplifiers as Swift64. In fact, Swift64 services will still be available after SwiftBroadband comes online, meaning customers will be able to use either service, as well as Aero-H voice.

News that Inmarsat is going ahead with plans to launch a third satellite for Asia and the Pacific was welcomed by attendees of the Montreal conference, many of whom work for companies that build Swift64 hardware and are planning to introduce SwiftBroadband upgrades. The sellers of Swift64 hardware include Chelton Satcom, EMS Technologies, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Thrane & Thrane, each of which has confirmed it will offer upgrades when SwiftBroadband becomes available to aviation users.

According to tests performed by Inmarsat, as many as 32,000 passengers can be logged onto the Web per satellite region at any given time, ensuring that there is ample room for growth.

One of Inmarsat’s biggest areas of growth has been government markets, due to the “global political climate” and the wider range of applications through Swift64. The Australians are using Swift64 in their Australian Coastwatch, and the U.S. Navy has quietly become the largest single user of Inmarsat services. By covering a wide spectrum of users (maritime and land mobile, as well as aeronautical), Inmarsat is able to spread its $1.6 billion investment in the I4 satellites and associated ground infrastructure over a broad market base, Tudge noted.

When the trio of I4 satellites is fully operational they will become the primary spacecraft in the constellation, displacing three of the five I3 satellites currently flying, which will remain on station in a contingency capacity.

Inmarsat has profited from the unexpectedly long life of the second-generation Inmarsat 2 satellites, which have exceeded their projected useful span after being launched in 1992 and 1993. Meanwhile, advances in aircraft antennas have reduced their size over the last 15 years, making installations easier and less costly with very little performance penalty. Tudge said this has made entry to the satcom market more attractive to a wider segment of the business aviation community.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the European Space Agency (ESA) will provide some funding for aeronautical, maritime and ground-based SwiftBroadband services through a contract for development of technology validation and system verification for a range of applications. ESA, through member organizations the British National Space Centre (BNSC) and the Norwegian Space Agency, will match investment totaling more than $5 million in the BGAN extension project committed by each of the SwiftBroadband consortium partners, which include Inmarsat, EMS, Logica, Nera and the University of Surrey. Total ESA investment in the project will reach $10 million.