Small business jets could get SwiftBroadband, too

 - October 2, 2006, 10:46 AM

With all the recent talk about airline passengers surfing the Web from the comfort of their seats (and perhaps at some point in the future even being permitted to place cellphone calls in flight), broadband satellite communication services for the aeronautical market appear positioned for significant growth. But there’s another positive side note to the story, and it directly affects many business aircraft operators.

When Inmarsat introduces its SwiftBroadband aero high-speed-data satcom service late next year, a whole host of hardware offerings for smaller business jets and turboprops are anticipated to follow. Couple this sudden expansion of equipment offerings with an expected drop in what Inmarsat charges for transmission of in-flight data, and many believe the stage is set for a new era in airborne communications capability, bringing not only Internet and e-mail access to more aircraft but also possibilities for voice-over-IP communications capability at a fraction of what Aero-H satcom calling costs today.

How low will SwiftBroadband prices go? Nobody outside Inmarsat seems to know for sure just yet, but company officials have strongly hinted that they could drop to levels that would stop the erosion of Inmarsat’s voice calling business to competitor Iridium, which currently charges less than $1.50 per minute for calls placed anywhere in the world. Compare that to the $9 to $12 per minute that an Aero-H satcom call can cost and buyers will quickly start to appreciate the benefits Inmarsat’s new generation of I-4 communications satellites offer.

Traditional Aero-H is the Inmarsat service most commonly used by airlines, business jet operators and government aircraft.

But supporting multi-channel voice and packet-mode data messaging at up to 9.6 kilobytes per second (kbps) and fax and circuit-mode data at up to 4.8 kbps, Aero-H is simply too slow for normal Web surfing. Many of the systems being integrated aboard aircraft today, however, are capable of accessing Inmarsat’s Swift64 data service, notable for delivering ISDN and mobile packet mode data services at a basic rate of 64 kbps. By comparison, SwiftBroadband will open Inmarsat’s aeronautical data pipeline to speeds as high as 432 kbps per channel, and if the speculation turns out to be true, SwiftBroadband services will cost less than Swift64 does today.

Another major issue for many operators is equipment size and weight. A typical Aero-H installation of the recent past consisted of a 6-MCU satellite data unit (SDU), a 4-MCU radio-frequency unit (RFU) and an 8-MCU high-power amplifier (HPA), all integrated with a high-gain antenna sub-system. In other words, big and bulky.

Newer-generation Aero-H units combine the SDU, RFU and HPA into a single unit, the 8-MCU satellite transceiver, and the latest antennas are much smaller and lighter than what the industry has been accustomed to installing. What’s more, tomorrow’s hardware is being built to specifications that will allow systems of the future to fit on just about any aircraft bigger than a light piston twin.

Trend Toward Downsizing

For the time being, hardware manufacturers don’t appear ready to discuss specifics about their future SwiftBroadband product lines, but all seem to agree that the trend will be toward smaller and lighter satcom technology, allowing high-speed data services to expand down to the light jet and turboprop markets. But as long as SwiftBroadband becomes more affordable, an untapped market for installations of satcom hardware in smaller business aircraft seems not too far in the distance.

Alan Mak, strategic marketing manager for EMS Satcom in Ottawa, Ontario, said future antenna technology will be a key piece of the puzzle in allowing manufacturers to bring high-speed-data services to a much broader range of airplanes. Even newer fuselage-mounted Arinc 781-style antennas, such as EMS’s own AMT-3800 phased-array antenna, are proving that technology is rapidly changing for the better, he said.

“The AMT-3800 represents pretty darn close to a quantum leap from traditional phased-array high-gain antennas,” Mak said. “As an example, EMS Satcom still manufactures the old Calquest antenna. The AMT-3800’s footprint is comparable to a Calquest antenna’s footprint, and a lot of those installations were on aircraft such as Hawkers and King Airs. So now with the AMT-3800 we’re able to serve medium-tube and turboprop operators. In terms of mechanical and size limitations, we’ve reached a new threshold.”

The AMT-3800 antenna measures 38 inches long, 13.5 inches wide and 1.96 inches high.

EMS Satcom competitors Chelton Satcom and CMC Electronics also have introduced sleek, lightweight Arinc 781 antennas that will fit on smaller business airplanes. Chelton’s HGA-7000 can be mounted on most business jets from the midsize class up, according to the company.

Measuring 33.9 inches long, 11.77 inches wide and 1.88 inches high, the 18.7-pound HGA-7000 claims the spot as the smallest and lightest in this class. Electronic steering eliminates the need for moving parts and–along with hermetic sealing of the antenna– contributes to its expected high reliability, according to Chelton.

Another recently introduced phased-array an- tenna, the SatLite satcom antenna from CMC Electronics, is touted by the manufacturer as being “optimized” for business jets. The top-mounted antenna with its integrated beam steering unit is based on the proprietary technology and architecture used in CMC’s CMA-2102 high-gain antenna system and supports Inmarsat Aero-H, Aero-H+, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband satcom services.

Like its competitors, the SatLite antenna is compatible with newer Arinc 781 and 741 legacy terminal equipment. The SatLite antenna measures 2.64 inches high, 39.9 inches long, 13.1 in-ches wide and weighs 16.75 pounds.