Satcom Direct hones service mix with new calling options

 - September 21, 2006, 6:03 AM

If you routinely fly aboard a business jet with an onboard Inmarsat satcom system, chances are you’ve heard of a Florida company called Satcom Direct. You’re probably even a customer.

Founded in 1997, Satcom Direct changed the world of satcom calling forever by offering dedicated telephone numbers that callers can use to reach the company airplane no matter where in the world it might be flying.

That may not seem like such a big deal, but once you understand the complicated process required to place a call to an airplane flying halfway around the globe–and actually get through to somebody on the other end–the effect Satcom Direct’s patented Global One Number service has had on the industry is easier to understand.

Without a 10-digit Global One Number, callers who want to reach the airplane have to navigate a maze of dialing logic that includes an often futile assessment of which of four ocean regions the airplane is flying over. Callers on the ground even have to know which of the handsets in the cabin they want to ring. Dial the wrong number and you may be calling a fax machine or the handset in the lavatory.

Global One Number cuts through what is often a cumbersome and confusing process by providing a single U.S.-based telephone number that includes an area code followed by seven digits, just like a regular phone number. Dial the number and you’ll be connected within 20 seconds, Satcom Direct claims.

After dialing a Global One Number and getting through, callers on the ground are greeted by a voice message with prompts that lets them ring the phone on the flight deck or any of the handsets in the cabin, lavatory or galley. Or they can send a fax instead. Choose the desired option and the call is automatically routed to the desired telephone handset in the airplane. Satcom Direct handles all the billing, with per-minute charges claimed to be on par with those of competing satcom service providers.

The Right Service at the Right Time

Founded by satellite communications engineer Jim Jensen almost a decade ago, Satcom Direct applied its own blend of hardware and software protocols to streamline complicated equipment processes, area-code tracking, international ground station access and satellite signal monitoring.

Not only were customers interested, they were downright enthusiastic about Satcom Direct’s Global One Number service. Today, more than 3,000 business aircraft and military VIP customers are signed up for Global One Number, with clients naming the convenience the service offers as the biggest factor in choosing Satcom Direct over other providers.

The Global One Number service costs $39.95 a month or $440 a year. The price increases to $660 per year for customers using both Inmarsat and MagnaStar telephones. As is the case with other providers, Satcom Direct derives most of its revenue not from monthly fees but from its cut of the per-minute calling charges. Inmarsat phone calls placed through Satcom Direct are in the $8 to $10 per minute range, which is in line with the industry norm.

Howard Lewis, company sales and marketing vice president, said Fortune 500 companies have come to trust Satcom Direct over the years, not only for Global One Number services, but also to assist flight departments seeking to upgrade to high-speed-data or Iridium hardware.

“Everybody calls Satcom Direct,” Lewis said. “Whether it’s for high-speed data, routers, satcom or whatever they need, the flight departments trust us to tell them what the right solution is for their aircraft.”

That relationship extends beyond a simple phone call now and then, Lewis said. Satcom Direct representatives often will travel to a customer location to provide consulting services free of charge. While it’s true that Satcom Direct has close business ties with satcom hardware makers, Lewis said the company’s bond with its flight department customers is even stronger.

Global One Number Goes International

Recently Satcom Direct introduced a new service called International Global One Number, or iGon, that allows customers to use “home country” telephone number prefixes assigned to their aircraft. Lewis said the service eliminates the need for callers to dial a U.S.-prefix routing number when sending voice, fax or data calls to airplanes registered in other countries.

Especially useful for calls routed to the airplane’s home country, the iGon service lets passengers use the same country code prefix as their home country. For now iGon numbers are available for aircraft based in France (+33), Italy (+39), Spain (+34), Sweden (+46), Switzerland (+41) and the UK (+44), but Lewis said the company has plans to expand the list to other countries soon. The annual fee for the service is $975.

Satcom Direct now also offers services for buyers of Iridium satcom equipment through agreements with hardware suppliers International Communications Group, Sky Connect, WingSpeed, Honeywell and AirCell. Lewis explained that customers who buy a two-channel Iridium system, as an example, can assign a single 10-digit phone number to both telephone receivers instead of two separate 15-digit phone numbers for each. Pricing for Iridium calls through Satcom Direct is $1.45 a minute (to and from the aircraft) or $.99 a minute for calls placed between two Iridium phones. The monthly fee is $24.95 per telephone channel, plus $5 for the Global One Number service.

Addressing a third major satcom market segment, the company now also provides connection services for high-speed data through Inmarsat’s Swift64 satellite link. Satcom Direct has had a hand in making improvements in the high-speed data arena as well, Lewis said, by teaming with hardware provider EMS Satcom to offer a new service called AeroX, which uses data compression and acceleration to increase the effective 64-kbps bandwidth of Inmarsat’s service by 100 to 400 percent.

The compression technology, which has been reverse engineered to be compatible with EMS Satcom’s eNfusion CNX-200 Cabin Network Xcelerator unit, was the brainchild of a company called Expand Networks. Where Satcom Direct enters the picture is by hosting ground-based hardware and software needed to make AeroX work as intended. Lewis said without Satcom Direct, each flight department would have to buy about $10,000 worth of computer equipment and maintain it at its own offices.

Another area where customers save money is in the per-minute charge for online surfing, Lewis said, explaining that Swift64 costs $8.95 a minute normally but drops to $7.95 for AeroX customers. The reason, he said, is that passengers tend to use the onboard Internet connection more if they have access to the faster data rates, and the lower per-minute fee reflects that extra usage. AeroX is compatible with satcom equipment sold by EMS Satcom, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Thrane & Thrane.

Another Satcom Direct service worth noting is worldwide position reporting over the Inmarsat network. To access the service, the pilots press the pound key and are put in contact with the nearest radio station. The best part about the service, noted Lewis, is that it’s free.

The U.S. military has also become increasingly interested in Satcom Direct’s mix of services, to the point that the company last year decided to open an office in the Washington, D.C. area to be closer to its Defense Department clients. Satcom Direct also opened an office in Phoenix last month to help it better serve customers in the Western U.S. Its headquarters is in Satellite Beach, Fla.

Next on the agenda for the company, said Lewis, is a line of satcom-related hardware, with the details scheduled for release later this month at the Aircraft Electronics Association’s annual convention, being held this year in Palm Springs, Calif.