SwiftBroadband set to make bizjet debut

 - July 8, 2008, 8:27 AM

After years of development and months of anticipation, Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband satellite aeronautical data service is finally poised for takeoff.

Hardware maker EMS Satcom and SwiftBroadband service provider Satcom Direct have been working with Boeing’s corporate flight department to bring the global area network data capability to the company’s fleet of Challengers and Boeing Business Jets. Hardware installations are scheduled to be finished by the end of this month, after which Boeing executives will have in-flight access to the Internet at speeds not experienced since the company’s own Connexion by Boeing satellite data service still operated.

When Boeing finally pulled the plug on Connexion in 2006, it seemed like a major blow to proponents of in-flight Internet services. But unlike the ill-fated Connexion service, which had development costs of around $1.5 billion, Inmarsat’s broadband global area network (BGAN) draws on a large pool of users that includes the U.S. Department of Defense, major oil companies, shipping firms and, now, corporate flight departments and airlines. BGAN development costs also totaled about $1.5 billion, but for a number of reasons the profit potential for Inmarsat is much higher than it could ever have been for Connexion.

In the years since Connexion’s famous flameout, Inmarsat has found itself facing off against a new crop of would-be competitors. The biggest question now centers on how successful these rival satellite- and ground-based data services will be in diluting Inmarsat’s market share.

Inmarsat officials apparently are convinced that ample opportunities exist for several players. After all, they invited a potential major competitor to be a presenter at a satellite user conference Inmarsat recently hosted in San Diego. Airline IFE supplier Panasonic is gearing up for a Ku-band satellite data service targeted to carriers flying between North America and Europe. Where Connexion suffered from its reliance on excessively large, fuselage-mounted antennas and expensive contracts with Ku-band satellite operators, Panasonic’s eXconnect service is being billed as a “Ku-band-lite” alternative that will offer “ultracompact” antennas and “smart buying” of Ku-band spectrum from satellite partners.

Inmarsat allowed Panasonic officials to provide details about their service to a packed audience at the conference, held May 28 to 30 at San Diego’s Hilton Mission Bay Resort. They did so in part because Panasonic will also become a big user of SwiftBroadband services through its eXphone partnership with in-flight communications provider AeroMobile. (Qantas has been an eXphone user for a little over a year and Dubai-based Emirates is poised to introduce the service across its fleet.)

Also, the eXconnect service will be available only in certain geographic regions. Inmarsat’s L-band SwiftBroadband service, conversely, will eventually be offered globally, minus coverage gaps at the poles. But the Panasonic service will provide data at rates much faster than is possible using SwiftBroadband, and that creates a potential problem for Inmarsat.

“The eXconnect Ku broadband service is all about speed,” noted David Brunner, executive director of corporate sales and marketing for Panasonic. “The world changed on us a couple of years ago, and now we find ourselves needing to handle the expectations of airlines and their passengers.”

SwiftBroadband is capable of delivering data to the airplane at a maximum rate of 432 kilobits per second per channel, although real-world rates usually top out somewhat lower, around 300 kbps. (SwiftBroadband is the marketing term for BGAN when it is used in aeronautical applications.) Inmarsat is allowing only two channels of data access per airplane, meaning connection speeds that max out at around 600 kbps–and the pipe must be shared among all the passengers. The Ku-band satellites Panasonic plans to use, on the other hand, can stream data at claimed speeds approaching 12 megabits per second–nearly 14 times faster than SwiftBroadband’s maximum two-channel data rate.

That has led some observers to question whether SwiftBroadband will be swift enough for airline and business jet passengers who are used to accessing the Internet at much higher speeds in their homes or offices. In the U.S., air-to-ground communication provider Aircell is preparing to offer an in-flight broadband service that will rely on a network of terrestrial towers delivering data to aircraft flying above 10,000 feet at “DSL-like speeds.” But similar to Panasonic’s planned Ku-band satellite service, Aircell’s GoGo offering for data-addicted passengers is available only in a specific region. Another Ku-band service, Arinc’s SkyLink, supplies data at rates of about 3.5 Mbps, again over a limited geographic area. SwiftBroadband is the only “global-area” data service available in flight.

Or at least it soon will be. For now there are two Inmarsat I4 satellites in stationary orbit providing coverage over about two-thirds of the planet. A third satellite supporting SwiftBroadband aero data and voice services over Asia and the Pacific will complete the I4 coverage area. The failure of a Russian Proton rocket in March, however, has thrown the schedule for the launch of this third and final I4 communications satellite into question, according to Inmarsat officials speaking at the San Diego conference.

The hope is that the third I4 satellite (designated F3) can be launched before the end of the summer. Inmarsat is awaiting the results of a launch failure board review, convened after the premature shutdown of the Russian rocket caused by a ruptured exhaust gas duct. This was the third failure of this type of rocket since 2006, although a government board in Moscow has said there is no particular flaw with the rocket design. The third I4 satellite is to be launched from Kazakhstan sometime after the review board decision, expected this month, officials said.

“In this century there have actually been five Proton failures, and the longest that it has taken to return to flight has been 150 days,” said Eugene Jilg, vice president of product evolution for Inmarsat. “I think we’ll be highly disappointed if we set a record for the longest return to flight” following a Proton failure.

Some are betting that the true strength of SwiftBroadband will lie in its ability to provide e-mail, text messaging and cellphone services to passengers after takeoff. The tight confines of an airliner passenger compartment make it difficult to use a laptop, but so-called smartphones are the perfect instrument for allowing high fliers to keep in touch with the rest of the world, proponents argue.

Besides AeroMobile (a partnership between Arinc and Telenor) aeronautical phone service provider OnAir has been flying commercially with a voice and text service since December. Passengers are charged by their home phone companies at rates similar to the charges for international roaming. The big benefit of both services is that passengers can use their own smartphones to make calls or send text messages without having to provide a credit card number or sign up for the service with the airline.

Eleven airlines will offer the OnAir GSM phone services in the next year, OnAir officials said, but none of them will be U.S. airlines. Cellphone use is banned by the FCC aboard aircraft, and an act of Congress might tie the commission’s hands if it ever decides to lift the ban. A coalition of satcom suppliers that includes Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Thrane & Thrane has formed to oppose the Hangup Act (which stands for Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace), a bill now wending its way through Congress that would prohibit voice calls using cellphones, PDAs or even laptops through voice-over-IP techniques on U.S. airline flights. As currently written, the prohibition would not extend to business airplanes.

Hardware Choices Growing

EMS Satcom has led the market by introducing the first SwiftBroadband-compatible hardware packages. Close on its heels is Thrane & Thrane, the Danish satcom maker that is nearing approval for its own SwiftBroadband hardware package. Honeywell and Rockwell Collins are also major players in this market, but their data satcom boxes are actually made by EMS Satcom and rebranded with the company’s own labels. SwiftBroadband antenna makers include EMS Satcom, CMC Electronics and Chelton Satcom. Chelton also plans to offer SwiftBroadband-compatible satcom systems.

EMS Satcom supplied its HSD-440 high-speed-data terminal for Boeing’s Challenger 604/605 fleet and HSD-400 in the BBJs. The BBJs have been flown extensively in the last several months to test the SwiftBroadband network. EMS recently introduced the System 6 and System 7 SwiftBroadband-compatible receiver and antenna systems, the first complete SwiftBroadband packages from the Ottawa, Canada firm. “We have designed System 6 and System 7 to appeal to business jet users who demand a complete worldwide office capability at an affordable price,” said Steve Newell, vice president for satcom sales for EMS.

The names correspond to the Class 6 and Class 7 designation for Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service. System 6 supplies data at rates between 200 and 300 kilobits per second through an eNfusion HSD-467 high-speed-data terminal and AMT-3800 high-gain antenna. System 7 is capable of data downloads between 100 and 200 kbps using the HSD-467 terminal and a smaller AMT-3500 intermediate-gain antenna and CCU-200 communications convergence unit.

The products will be available later this summer, Newell said. The first installation will be on a Falcon 20. The AMT-3500 antenna can fit on a range of business jets down to the Learjet 45 and midsize Citations. In the past, only operators of larger airplanes could install the Inmarsat data satcom gear because of antenna size limitations.

Thrane & Thrane, meanwhile, recently introduced its Aero-SB Lite satcom system, billed as the smallest SwiftBroadband system on the market. First announced at last year’s NBAA Convention in Atlanta, Aero-SB Lite is designed to support voice, e-mail and Internet access over a single SwiftBroadband channel at speeds up to 332 kbps. Built-in Wi-Fi capability will support passenger communications through laptops, BlackBerrys and other PDAs.

Using a smaller and less complex intermediate-gain antenna instead of the high-gain installations offered with other SBB satcom packages, Aero-SB Lite lives up to its claim of being exceptionally lightweight and compact. In fact, not only is it suitable for use aboard business jets, it can also be installed on turboprops and even helicopters.

Aircell has selected the system to complement its ground-to-air broadband system. Aero-SB Lite will be integrated with Aircell’s own Axxess cabin communications system to provide business jet passengers with data access outside the U.S.