A ‘Swift’ concept brings Web inside the business jet cabin

 - May 19, 2008, 6:15 AM

Inmarsat last month announced the commercial availability of the new Swift64 mobile data pipeline, an airborne satellite Internet service that the company claims finally bridges the gap between a user’s ground-bound office and the aircraft cabin.

Swift64 allows aircraft passengers to access the Web, send e-mail and even take part in video-conferencing sessions while aloft almost anywhere in the world. Until now, such capability was simply unavailable to satcom buyers.

The Internet connection passengers can expect through the Swift64 satellite data service is on par with 56K modem and single-channel ISDN connections. By 2004 Inmarsat plans to roll out an even faster service that will rival the data rates of DSL and fractional T1 connections.

During a demonstration of Swift64 aboard Honeywell’s Citation V last month, the service performed as advertised. Installed in the aircraft was a Honeywell/Thales HS-600 satcom data unit that received the satellite feed through a phased-array antenna built by CMC Electronics. A network server unit installed aboard the airplane allowed multiple laptop computers to tap into the service simultaneously, converting the passenger compartment into a mini-LAN (local-area network) capable of supporting as many as nine users.

During the demo, getting on the Web was as simple as powering up a laptop computer, in this case a Macintosh PowerBook G4, and plugging into the network. There was no software to load, no settings to configure, no bugs to overcome. Upon opening Microsoft Internet Explorer, the computer was on the Web and the user ready for some serious surfing.

Trips to several sites proved that the service not only worked but worked exceptionally well. Swift64 should impress passengers used to the previous data rate through Inmarsat’s satellite constellation, an excruciatingly sluggish 2.4 kbps–not even fast enough to establish a Web connection.

To get an accurate measure of the Swift64 connection speed, AIN visited Toast.net, a site that offers free online Web performance tests. It took about two minutes for Swift64 to load a high-resolution image of the Space Shuttle Endeavor lifting off from Cape Canaveral,  Fla., along with the full text of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996, a rather large document. The results page listed an average data rate of 128 kbps. Compression techniques made this relatively fast rate possible. Most buyers using a simple connection from the high-speed data unit to a laptop, said Honeywell, will experience max data rates of between 46 and 57 kbps.

Bizav Before Airlines

The initial service offering from Inmarsat is for the corporate jet market, and the Honeywell/Thales HS-600 is the first data unit approved for aviation. Installations are scheduled to begin next month, almost a year sooner than Honeywell originally expected. Simon Tudge, Inmarsat marketing manager, said the ground/space network is in place and that mobile packet data services will be ready when the first passengers tap into the system. Airline service, he added, won’t be available until the end of the year.

Inmarsat anticipates a large market for its aero-data services among business aircraft operators. As of December, more than 4,000 aircraft worldwide were equipped with satcom, 1,400 of which were business airplanes. Tudge said that for the past five years a significant number of users have been waiting for the availability of airborne data access.

“The rollout of this service is designed to fill a crucial information gap for aircraft passengers,” he said. “It’s exciting because we’re at the starting point of seeing what technology can be applied to Swift64, and how customers will use the service. Then we’ll go from there to determine what else passengers want.”

During the Honeywell demonstration which occurred on the ground at the Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., rather than in the air because of a problem with an engine starter generator–technicians attempted a video link with the company’s offices back in Phoenix. Picture quality and sound during the conference was poor, demonstrating that the technology has some ground to cover yet. Still, Tudge predicted customers would find uses for Swift64 that the designers never thought of.

The coverage footprint for Swift64 services is the same as for Inmarsat voice satcom. All landmasses and most oceanic flight routes, except routes over the North Pole, are covered. Four Inmarsat satellites blanket the earth with communications coverage from their geosynchronous positions 23,000 mi from earth. Because of the great distance that the satellite signals must travel, there is a communications lag of a couple of seconds. For average Internet users, said Tudge, the delay will not be noticeable.

Customers can sign up for Swift64 service through Honeywell’s OneLink program. The company is offering an introductory free airtime package for OneLink Aero-H/H+ customers. Swift64 services cost between $11 and $15 per minute, depending on the aircraft’s location and how the data pipe is being used. Internet surfing, known as circuit mode, has a different charging fee than sending data such as large e-mail attachments, which is called packet mode. Web browsing costs $11 to $15 per minute, while packet transfers are charged at $9 to $12 per megabyte. The difference between circuit and packet modes is that with circuit mode the connection is always on, while in packet mode a dedicated channel is not required.

Most customers who purchase the HS-600 or HS-700 data system will likely opt for the NSU-4 network server as well. The server, a full-featured IP router running Linux, is installed aboard the aircraft to allow multiple users to connect to the system at the same time. The pros of working in a network server environment are a higher transfer rate–typically 120 to 170 kbps compared with 36 to 45 kbps without the server–support of corporate virtual private networks (VPN) and the ability to connect to the Internet through wireless gateways. The limitations are that decompression of data is required on the ground and links to VPNs cannot be optimized, meaning throughput of only 36 kbps to 45 kbps while connected to the VPN.

Whether a network server is installed or not, the system has a few quirks. One of these is that Microsoft Outlook, the e-mail program preferred by most Internet users, often crashes if the satellite link is dropped while a transfer is in progress.

Limited production of the Honeywell/ Thales HS-600 is scheduled to begin in June, and the HS-700 will be available next summer. The major difference between the two is that the HS-600 supports only the circuit mode and the HS-700 supports both circuit and packet modes. List price for the HS-600 with high-power amplifier, RF combiner and splitter is $218,000. Price for the HS-700 has yet to be released.

Hardware needed to set up an on-aircraft network connected to Swift64 is a satcom system, including the antenna (the Honeywell/ Thales MCS-3000, MCS-4000, MCS-6000 and MCS-7000 are all compatible), the HS-600 data unit with high-power amplifier, the NSU-4 network computer and a wireless or 10/100BT Ethernet hub.