Swift64 promises ISDN speed for airborne Web connections

 - May 27, 2008, 6:35 AM

The first commercially available airborne Internet link for business jets has arrived in the form of Swift64, a global satcom data service from Inmarsat designed to rival the data transfer rates of ground-based ISDN connections.

Scheduled for availability early next year, Swift64 is intended to operate with existing satcom systems and antennas. It will provide Internet connections at speeds of 64 kbps or higher at “a fraction of the cost” of rival services from Boeing and Tenzing, both of which are developing broadband hardware and services for the airline market.

David Featherstone, head of aeronautical operations at Inmarsat, said mobile ISDN services through the Swift64 link would be charged on a per-minute basis, while mobile packet data (TCP/IP) service will be based on a per-megabyte rate. Either way, the prices for airborne Internet access are expected to be competitive with other proposed options for business aviation, such as DeCrane Aircraft Holdings’ proposed e-Cabin. Connect service and the in-development link from Qualcomm and mobile satellite communications group Globalstar.

Inmarsat has yet to release pricing information, although a spokeswoman said firm details would be made available closer to the service’s launch, expected early next year. She added that the service would be billed by wholesalers such as Comsat rather than by Inmarsat directly.

Featherstone said 80 percent of modern long-haul commercial airliners and more than 1,000 business jets are already equipped with satcom antennas and receivers, meaning that startup equipment costs for customers will be low because the needed aircraft infrastructure in many cases is in place.

Wireless Infrared

Passengers on Swift64-equipped aircraft would be able to access Inmarsat’s services through onboard servers, representing the major customer cost for airplanes that already have satcom systems on board. An e-mail server would manage the assignment of network capacity to passengers and the switching between satcom and other transmission sources. Ethernet local-area network links in the cabin would create a server environment allowing data rates of up to 100 Mbps. In the future, wireless alternatives will allow passengers to connect to the Internet through an infrared network connection, said Featherstone.

Most of the major satcom equipment manufacturers by now are deeply involved in developing hardware for use with the Swift64 service. EMS Technologies of Ottawa, Canada, was one of the first out of the block, and has introduced a version of its satcom terminal that combines the speed of two satellite channels in a single unit, working in tandem to provide connection rates of 128 kbps.

Called the aeronautical data terminal (ADT) 1000, the unit is compatible with all Arinc 741 Aero-H/H+ satcom antennas, including the AMT-50 produced by the company’s satcom division. EMS Technologies recently oversaw the first installation of an ADT-1000 system in a Gulfstream IV performed by Midcoast Aviation in Cahokia, Ill. That contract required the sandwiching of two AMT-50 antennas under a single tail-mounted radome, a significant milestone in itself, according to Al Hansen, EMS Technologies president and CEO.

“It was the first time a dual tail-mounted satcom antenna installation had been done by anyone,” said Hansen. “The AMT-50 is well suited to a dual installation, as it is the lightest and smallest antenna available on the market.” Co-locating two AMT-50s does not compromise antenna performance, Hansen claimed, because the antennas are made of composite materials and therefore do not create an RF shadow that otherwise would block signals to the sister antenna.

“We see a dual AMT-50 installation as a popular choice for operators who demand redundant satcom systems without a heavy weight penalty on top of their tail,” said Hansen.

Other avionics manufacturers that have committed to producing equipment compatible with Swift64 are Ball Aerospace, Honeywell, Thales, Rockwell Collins and Thrane & Thrane. The Swift64 pipeline for business aviation could be increased to as high as 432 kbps by 2004, according to the service’s designers.

Competing Products

In the airline market, Boeing has introduced the Connexion airborne data service and Tenzing has developed Flight Connect. Both systems connect to the Internet through Ku-band satellites for very high (512 kbps) data transfer rates. Unfortunately for business aircraft operators, the phased-array antennas needed to connect with the system are too large for all but bizliners.

For the business aviation market, DeCrane is piecing together the components of its proposed e-Cabin.Connect airborne Web link, which also sends and receives data through Ku-band satellites, but with a much smaller dish-type antenna. Many of the details have yet to be worked out, but DeCrane remains hopeful that it can gain certification for its design early next year.

Chuck Curry, v-p and business manager of the DeCrane-led program, said first deliveries of test hardware for flight trials in a GIV-SP were made in October. At press time, that airplane, based at Orange County Airport in California, was on the verge of making its maiden flight with e-Cabin test hardware.

DeCrane has submitted the paperwork for DO 160 approval for the system. It expects to gain an STC from the FAA for installations in the GIV-SP by the middle of next month and start customer deliveries after that. Price for the complete system is $325,000, which includes an airborne computer server and a Rantec antenna. DeCrane will be offering demonstrations of e-Cabin. Connect at this month’s NBAA Convention at partner Teledyne Controls’ booth.

Meanwhile, Qualcomm in late October hosted a technology demonstration of its proposed airborne Internet service in a company-owned Challenger 604. The link was made using the Globalstar low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellation. Officials from Airshow attended the demonstration, but Airshow is no longer formally involved in the program. Globalstar’s financial difficulties prompted all sides to put the program on the back burner for now.

If Globalstar’s bottom line begins to show signs of a rebound and it emerges successfully from bankruptcy protection, it is possible the Globalstar Web link would become a commercially available product. In the meantime, a spokeswoman for Qualcomm said the technology demonstration was meant only to show that the system is viable, adding that no product from Qualcomm for business aviation is scheduled to go forward at this time.