Traffic growth puts a chokehold on Swift64

 - March 27, 2007, 12:42 PM

Although Inmarsat officials insist that the company is exploring ways to alleviate Swift64 data traffic congestion–which has been preventing many users of the satellite ISDN service from accessing the network at peak times–they say improvements won’t come until this summer when engineers start implementing a number of technical remedies designed to free up additional frequency spectrum.

The situation reached a head on February 28 when stock markets in China and the U.S. began precipitous slides and business jet passengers, particularly those on the U.S. East Coast, reached for their laptops only to find that getting connected was impossible. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 3.3 percent–the largest single-day drop since the 9/11 terrorist attacks–causing a surge of airborne data traffic that left CEOs and other high-flying VIPs with no way of monitoring the markets and, perhaps just as important, placing online sell orders.

The chiefs of maintenance for a handful of large corporate flight departments used their time at a customer conference hosted by Satcom Direct last month to grill Inmarsat executives on the issue. Lars Ringertz, head of aeronautical satcom marketing for Inmarsat in London, acknowledged Swift64’s congestion problems, which he said began about a year ago and have worsened over time. He said the satellite maker is exploring ways to allocate extra spectrum in affected areas and working with hardware makers to develop equipment upgrades. “Nobody expected this kind of growth,” Ringertz said of the Swift64 service, adding that the start of
the higher-bandwidth SwiftBroadband service later this year should help alleviate the peak-time slowdowns.

Meanwhile, Inmarsat plans to create a so-called “closed user group,” guaranteeing network access for certain high-bandwidth users at peak times. This step will move some of the heaviest data traffic away from the current pipelines that Inmarsat’s regular aero data satcom customers use. Inmarsat might also add data channels from land and maritime services, although a decision on whether this reshuffling of spectrum makes sense has yet to be made, Ringertz said.

Although it accounts for only a small portion of Inmarsat’s annual revenue, the Swift64 service has skyrocketed since its introduction in 2002, growing to include more than 1,500 data channels, most of them installed aboard business jets and military/government VIP aircraft, many of them flying with their ISDN connections turned on nearly all the time.

Early on, Inmarsat officials predicted that Swift64 frequency congestion would probably never become a concern because they did not envision a time when an overabundance of users would be trying to log on to the Internet simultaneously. “If that were ever to happen, it would be a good-news story for us,” one Inmarsat official said at the time.

However, the Swift64 network quickly surpassed the number of users it could support at peak times–generally defined as weekday afternoons–in certain high-use areas, specifically the Atlantic Ocean West Region over the Eastern portion of the U.S., but also over parts of Europe and the Middle East.

Service provider Satcom Direct has been bearing a good deal of the brunt of complaints from corporate flight department customers, who use the company’s Global One Number and AeroX satcom options for making calls and connecting to the Inmarsat data network. Satcom Direct founder and president Jim Jensen said he would like to see better real-time communication between Inmarsat and customers, perhaps by providing corporate flight departments with Swift64 network monitoring over Satcom Direct’s customer Web portal. The idea would be to provide continuously updated Swift64 status reports, where green would mean no problems, yellow would mean some slowdowns and red would indicate critical congestion levels.

Jensen admitted he was merely “thinking out loud” about ways to approach the problem but insisted that solutions other than spectrum reallocation and hardware upgrades could be implemented. “We’re all in this together,” he said. Ringertz urged flight department managers to convince passengers to use the Swift64’s “mobile packet data service” when sending only e-mail messages, pointing out that this service is separate from the ISDN channels and, consequently, costs less as well.

Jensen and Ringertz made their remarks at Satcom Direct’s annual customer conference in Melbourne, Fla., near the service provider’s headquarters. Besides Inmarsat, conference presenters included Iridium, AirCell, Thrane & Thrane, EMS Satcom and Chelton Satcom. The big news from Iridium was the announcement that it will build and deploy a new satellite constellation called Iridium Next to replace the network of 66 low-earth-orbit satellites that provide its worldwide voice and low-rate data communications services–but which will run out of fuel in the next decade.

Motorola launched Iridium in 1998 as a go-anywhere phone service aimed at executives, with outdoor coverage available everywhere on the planet, even the North and South Poles. But the service’s high price and bulky handsets doomed it to financial failure. The satellites remained in orbit and the current company, which took over in 2000, has had more success selling data communications to government, maritime and aviation users.

Over the next few years, Iridium will take a closer look at technologies and seek partners and financing for the system, which is expected to cost around $2.2 billion and be fully operational by 2016. The current Iridium network provides a baseline data speed of only 2.4 kilobits per second, but it supports voice calls, e-mail and exchange of data such as aircraft position. Iridium Next could offer data connections as high as 10 megabits per second, which would be far faster than Inmarsat’s next-generation SwiftBroadband service, which will offer connection of 432 kbps when the pipeline is switched on later this year. Swift64 ISDN connections top out at 64 kbps per channel, although many customers seek to increase their overall throughput by bonding multiple channels.

Iridium Next will gradually replace the current generation of satellites, which are expected to reach the end of their useful lives starting around 2014. By that time, Inmarsat will likely be well along in plans for a higher-bandwidth satellite service to compete with Iridium and ground-based broadband services such as AirCell’s forthcoming aeronautical offering. In the meantime, Inmarsat has given the go-ahead for the launch of a third I4 satellite that will bring SwiftBroadband service to the Asia-Pacific region and complete its worldwide constellation, accessible over most of the earth except for gaps at the poles.