Iridium mulls high-speed data service for business jets

 - July 3, 2007, 12:19 PM

Iridium hardware maker International Communications Group (ICG) reports launching a study to determine the potential requirements for an aeronautical satcom antenna capable of linking to a proposed high-speed-data transceiver under development by Iridium.

ICG president Armin Jabs said the company is evaluating antenna designs with an unidentified supplier to support a 128-kilobits-per-second data service Iridium plans to launch by the end of the year for the maritime market. Jabs said it might be possible to shrink the antenna that will be needed to support the service to a size that could be installed aboard business jets. An Iridium high-speed-data service would be a competitor to Inmarsat’s Swift services and some of the other airborne broadband options, Jabs said, “if we can find the right antenna.”

Iridium officials said the company plans to make the high-speed service available initially aboard ships in the form of a “flexible broadband” transceiver that would be capable of providing various data rates to users. The antenna for the maritime product would measure about 12 inches long and four inches high, said David Wigglesworth, director for data services at Iridium in Bethesda, Md. “Antenna technology is the big question mark we face in trying to bring this service to the aeronautical market,” he said. “We might just want to wait for the Iridium Next constellation to bring a high-speed-data service to aircraft.”

Iridium Next is the planned replacement constellation for the 66 active low-earth-orbit satellites that make up Iridium’s cross-linked network. (See related story on page 72.) Scheduled for initial deployment in 2014, the replacement satellites will cost around $2.2 billion to build and deploy and will likely contain a data component providing aero users connection speeds of around 10 megabits per second, Wigglesworth said. Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service–due for introduction later this year–provides a maximum data speed of 432 kbps per channel to the aircraft.

New Products Coming
The number-two seller of Iridium hardware in the aeronautical market, ICG has been experiencing rapid growth in the last few years. The company has mushroomed from 18 employees in 2003 to 68 today and has moved into a 90,000-sq-ft headquarters and production facility in Newport News, Va. The fact that ICG currently occupies only about a third of the building’s overall space is indicative of the success the company hopes to achieve in future phases of growth, according to an ICG spokeswoman.

“Our plans include branching out beyond business aviation by developing new products for the air transport market and getting back into the maritime market,” she said. “That means continued growth here for us.”

Today about 90 percent of ICG’s sales involve installations of its telecommunications gear and Iridium satcom systems in business jets. The company is the standard supplier of Iridium phone systems for the entire Bombardier line, including Learjets, and serves as the de facto standard for telecom boxes in the Boeing Business Jet and Airbus Corporate Jetliner. About 75 percent of the aero products ICG ships are for installation in new business jets, which besides the Bombardier models include the Gulfstream G150 and G200, the Embraer Legacy and, soon, Embraer’s Phenom 100 and 300.

But business aviation wasn’t always the company’s major market focus. Founded 17 years ago as World Communications Systems, the tiny upstart was for a time the world’s top supplier of telecom gear aboard cruise ships. That sounds quite impressive until you realize that only a handful of new cruise ships are built each year.

In 1994 the company relaunched itself as International Communications Group, discontinuing its maritime products and re-engineering them for the aeronautical world. “We got into the Iridium business mainly because we couldn’t find a partner to work with,” Jabs said. ICG already had a line of telecom units and handsets, he explained, but efforts to team with other suppliers never got past the early discussion stages, Jabs said.

As for the higher-rate Iridium data service, Jabs acknowledged it could be tough to find the right antenna. But customers certainly are demanding such access to data once airborne. In fact, the idea for the service came from the Department of Defense, which has been bonding several Iridium channels to obtain higher data rates aboard military command aircraft. Iridium looked at what the DOD was doing and decided it would be possible to develop a more “elegant” solution containing multiple transceivers in a single LRU. Once Iridium flips the switch for the 128-kbps service, Jabs predicts, “Everybody will want it.”