EBACE showcases broadband options

 - May 17, 2008, 11:34 PM

Following a somewhat protracted rollout, the availability of end-user airborne broadband services now appears ready to meet the burgeoning demand from business aircraft operators and their passengers. And much of this technology is being demonstrated here at EBACE this week.

In the world of new generation high-speed connectivity from Inmarsat (Booth No. 709), a recent postponement to the launch of its third “Inmarsat-4” satellite covering the Pacific region has not dampened enthusiasm for the widespread rollout of high-speed airborne Web-surfing using its latest SwiftBroadband offering. Indeed, SwiftBroadband, which was launched in October 2007 with Internet protocol-based “always-on” connectivity, has already gained traction, helped by the emergence of compatible services and equipment from a large number of providers. Related to this is the growing popularity of portable Wi-Fi-enabled devices for 24/7 e-mail, instant-messaging applications, VoIP (voice-over-Internet protocol), music downloads, streaming “live” video, video-conferencing, and of course general Internet browsing–all of which will greatly benefit from the higher bandwidths.

In another camp altogether, Rockwell Collins (Booth No. 1208) has assumed responsibility for hardware development of the promising alternative to SwiftBroadband: Arinc’s high-speed SkyLink Ku-band satellite broadband data service. SkyLink was previously a competitor to the now-defunct Connexion service and allows Collins to re-launch its eXchange data service for business jets in conjunction with airborne service and equipment provider ViaSat. The net result is broadband speeds of up to a rapid 3.5 Mbps to the aircraft, with coverage presently encompassing North America, Europe and the North Atlantic, with Caribbean and partial South and Central America coverage to be added before the end of the year.

EBACE Convention News has obtained highlights from a number of the main satcom equipment and service providers exhibiting here. First is Aircell (Booth No. 138), which is developing two broadband options for business aviation: a global SwiftBroadband solution and a proprietary high-speed ground-based system for North America called “Aircell Broadband.” The latter is based on its recently completed nationwide network of wireless 92 ground sites.

The system will later be expanded into Canada and Mexico.

Beginning in 2009, Aircell Broadband will be available exclusively to business aviation customers with the Aircell Axxess cabin system installed in their aircraft. Axxess is also compatible with other network services, including Iridium and Inmarsat Swift64.

EMS Satcom (Booth No. 709) lays claim to being the first airborne provider with a SwiftBroadband approved terminal. As Inmarsat’s system ramps up to commercial service launch in 2009, EMS continues its flight testing with a Fortune 100 customer on a Boeing Business Jet. Jean Menard, vice president of commercial sales, explained that during a recent flight from Chicago to Hawaii, he observed that even with five people connected wirelessly on laptops, the experience was similar to his home DSL service.

According to the company, there has been an “exponential demand” for this level of in-flight connectivity in the last few months. “It’s interesting that the slowing down of the economy would be a driver for SwiftBroadband,” Menard noted. “We have a number of customers who insist on Internet connectivity when they fly to track stocks and other economic indicators.”

Another trend identified by EMS Satcom is the push for smaller, lighter, more powerful and less expensive equipment. “The underlying reason for this trend is the rising demand for aircraft other than BBJ and [Gulfstream] GIVs, such as Cessnas, Embraer, [Bombardier] Learjets and Challenger 300 and 605s. Moreover, EMS will be launching new satcom products later this year,” said Menard.

Additionally, EMS’s new fuselage-mounted AMT-3800 high-gain antenna has recently received TSO-C132 approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Satcom1 (Booth No. 915) has launched its first installation of in-flight “IPTV” for onboard live TV. First installations will take place later this year on a Bombardier Challenger 604 and an Airbus A330. Satcom1 has also finalized a new satcom LAN, including a real-time videoconference system using its Swift eXpress. The latter uses Inmarsat Swift64 service, the first installation of which has already been performed on a Saudi Arabian-owned VIP A320.

Since then, BBJs and an A330 have had the videoconference system installed. A fourth installation will take place this fall. The company said, however, that in the future the high-bandwidth SwiftBroadband technology “will have the attention.”

Meanwhile, Thales (Booth No. 940) is preparing TopFlight Satcom as its platform for the new Inmarsat SwiftBroadband service. This service will allow a change in the level of connectivity available to passengers with the potential to support mobile phones, and provide Wi-Fi access for VoIP and data applications, including Internet access during a flight. For GSM voice calls and SMS text messages, Thales will provide an onboard mobile base station, which creates an onboard “cell” that uses Thales’ broadband satellite communications equipment to route calls and data–via SwiftBroadband–to networks on the ground.

Thrane & Thrane (Booth No. 301) is the company behind the now familiar Aero HSD+ cabin communications system that has continued to develop its portfolio to ensure that SwiftBroadband is available to a wide range of business aircraft.
EBACE’08 sees the company focusing on its new line of “Total Cabin Solutions” optimized for SwiftBroadband. Its flagship “Aero-SB+” will improve voice, data and video conferencing speed and quality while reducing voice costs by up to 75 percent.
“The flexibility of the service enables operators and users to choose between billing types, by being charged either for the amount of data transferred or for the quality of service, which ensures bandwidth is always available,” said Jesper Baekgaard Hansen, director of aeronautical global marketing for Thrane & Thrane.

A related product, “Aero-SB Lite,” is another option for business aircraft operators. “Aero-SB Lite utilizes intermediate-gain antenna technology to ensure a light package with low profile/drag and small antenna footprint on the fuselage, making it suitable for smaller aircraft, therefore widening the possibilities for the type of aircraft that can utilize SwiftBroadband data,” Hansen added.

Satcom Direct (Booth No. 684) recently added SwiftBroadband to its range of service offerings, which will be compatible with its existing “Aero-X” service. “SwiftBroadband is the next logical step for operators who want to enhance the communications capabilities of their aircraft,” said David Greenhill, president of Satcom Direct Communications. “In addition to offering speeds of up to 432 kbps and cost savings of up to 66 percent, it also enables such popular interfaces as VoIP handsets, Wi-Fi mobile phones and BlackBerry PDAs,” he added.

As mentioned earlier, the alternative to Inmarsat’s high-speed SwiftBroadband coverage provided by the Inmarsat-4 satellites, is Arinc’s high-speed SkyLink Ku-band satellite broadband data service, managed by Rockwell Collins as eXchange in conjunction with ViaSat (Booth No. 1651).

“Probably the most exciting area of development for us is the expansion of our coverage area,” claimed Bill Sullivan, director of strategy for the ViaSat broadband systems group. “We have two satellite-based networks operating in North America, another operating over the North Atlantic air corridor, one operating over Europe and one covering the Caribbean. Our airborne equipment automatically determines the local coverage region and switches between coverage regions as the aircraft flies from one area into another.

“We are adding coverage regions incrementally,” he explained. “We are planning coverage across the North Pacific and throughout Southeast Asia this spring or summer. In 2009, we intend to add coverage regions across China, the Middle East, Russia, India and the Indian Ocean. We have longer range plans to add coverage throughout South America, and even across Africa as commercial demand develops.”