Gulfstream, Arinc prep GIV for broadband tests

 - May 8, 2008, 5:47 AM

Gulfstream and Arinc late last month were preparing for initial flight trials in a GIV of the dish antenna and other hardware components to power a new airborne broadband datalink service called SkyLink.

Developed by Arinc for midsize and larger business airplanes, the Ku-band satellite service is claimed to offer unparalleled data-connection speeds for well below the prices charged by SkyLink’s nearest rival, the Swift64 data service from Inmarsat.

Tom Mullan, Arinc senior director for the SkyLink program, said the flight tests from Savannah, Ga., in the GIV are a first step in a full regimen of planned testing that is expected to culminate with FAA certification and the first STCs for SkyLink in the third quarter of next year. Arinc engineers, he said, are about five months away from flight testing the service with an upgraded bidirectional antenna, ground tests for which are scheduled to start in January in Carlsbad, Calif., where the bulk of SkyLink development is occurring. After the first customer Gulfstream aircraft receives the hardware and begins operating, Arinc will seek STCs for the system in other business jets, said Mullan.

Gulfstream in September announced it agreed to purchase 40 complete SkyLink systems from Annapolis, Md.-based Arinc for customer airplanes. This was the launch order for the system, but Mullan said he eventually expects all the major business aircraft OEMs will offer SkyLink as an option.

As described by Mullan, SkyLink has only a few main components, the most important being the 11.5-in. dish-type antenna that is mounted on the top of the tail. Built by Rantec, it is the same size as a DirecTV antenna and can in fact be used for receiving DirecTV signals. This means that buyers who want the ability to switch back and forth between surfing the Internet or watching satellite tv don’t have to install two antennas, an engineering impossibility for some aircraft models due to space limitations.

SkyLink data is sent at a rate of three megabytes per second (about 50 times faster than a home user’s telephone modem) by an SES Americom satellite parked in orbit over North America. It offers coverage of the entire continental U.S. and, with spot beams, can extend to Alaska and the Pacific out to Hawaii.

Other SkyLink hardware includes an antenna control unit, which houses the software that steers the antenna, and a small transceiver box that weighs about 15 lb.

Mullan said it would be up to the individual OEMs to decide on retail pricing for SkyLink hardware, adding that the goal is to set prices below what is currently charged for satcom-based Swift64 equipment, which sells for about $150,000 and up. Service pricing, he added, has been fixed at $4,000 per month for 20 hr of usage, after which connection time will be charged at a rate of $125 per hour. Mullan pointed out that this structure works out to $3.33 per minute, or about a third the cost of Swift64, which is priced at $11 to $14 per minute. However, under terms of the SkyLink agreement customers pay for the entire 20-hr block of time whether they use it or not. Swift64 is a pay-as-you-go service.

Arinc is studying the possibility of expanding SkyLink beyond the U.S. to the North Atlantic, Europe and the Middle East. The addressable market for the service, said Mullan, is about 3,000 aircraft, and would include “everything from the Citation X and larger.”