Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband up and running for bizjets

 - July 29, 2008, 11:20 AM

Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband satellite Internet service is available so far on only a handful of business jets, and one of them was parked at TAG Aviation throughout last month’s Farnborough International Airshow. A demonstration of Internet access aboard the Fortune 50 company’s Boeing Business Jet confirmed that the Inmarsat service works well for Web-mail-type applications, but also that it can be frustratingly slow when trying to bring up content-heavy sites such as

Installed aboard this airplane are an EMS Satcom HSD-400 data terminal and AMT-50 tail-mounted antenna, used for accessing a single channel of SwiftBroadband. Typical data rates experienced in flight are between 200 and 300 kilobits per second, a speed that seemed inadequate for most types of Web surfing during the demonstration. It should be noted, however, that the company that operates this BBJ connects through a secure corporate VPN (virtual private network), further bogging down the data stream. Also, only a single channel of SwiftBroadband is available for now; a second channel would double the speed.

Asked what the executives who fly aboard the BBJ think about the service,
a flight department employee who was involved in flight testing the HSD-400 system over the last several months said reviews have been mixed. “They like it, but they want it to be faster,” he said.

Inmarsat is allowing users to bond a maximum of two SwiftBroadband channels; the company doesn’t want to allow more channels for fear of causing network congestion. The combined channels would provide data rates of between 400 and 600 kilobits per second, which still might not be ideal for impatient executives who are accustomed to much faster access on the ground.

Still, 600 kbps is adequate for many types of application likely to be used in flight, and is actually quite good for most types of e-mail communication. By contrast, the original Inmarsat Swift64 service provides a maximum data rate of 64 kbps per channel. This particular BBJ has a second AMT-50 antenna and four channels of Swift64, which cannot be bonded with the SwiftBroadband signal.

It’s likely that many passengers will understand the limitations of the service and be satisfied with e-mail access (especially those using their own Wi-Fi BlackBerrys) and willing to exercise patience on those occasions when they need to visit Web sites. Attempts to access data-intensive sites that offer streaming video, however, are out of the question. Passengers are better off waiting until they reach the hotel.

It’s worth noting that there are a number of ways to squeeze extra speed from the SwiftBroadband network, one of them being installation of a CNX network accelerator that EMS Satcom sells. Web browsers and laptops can also be optimized for in-flight use by IT pros.

Connecting through a remote-access service (in this case GoToMyPC), for example, allowed for much quicker Web access, owing to the fact that a desktop PC connected to a DSL line many thousands of miles away was doing the heavy data lifting, and the SwiftBroadband connection was merely displaying a picture of the host computer’s screen.