SwiftBroadband employed more for e-mail than Web

 - June 30, 2009, 11:28 AM

Inmarsat’s I-4 mobile broadband satellite constellation is finished and the first SwiftBroadband customers are enjoying data access at speeds faster and for lower cost than the previous generation of Swift64 service, so one would think the London-based company would have little information to share at its annual aeronautical conference, held last month in Vancouver.

But now that SwiftBroadband is up and running, installers are scrambling to learn all of the tricks that are essential to making it run smoothly in customer airplanes. A performance enhancement package of software is a godsend, say IT experts, and the ability of new terminals from hardware makers is providing ample reason to talk about the latest and greatest in this growing field.

But the really surprising news from the conference was that high-flying executives aren’t using SwiftBroadband to get on the Web but rather
for accessing their e-mail, and if the CEO craves worldwide access to e-mail after takeoff, there’s really only one choice: Inmarsat’s mobile satellite communications services. Well, actually, there are two choices, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband, the options Inmarsat offers for getting connected in flight.

Swift64 provides download data transmission speeds of 64 kilobits per second (kbps) per channel maximum. That’s only slightly faster than an old telephone modem connection. SwiftBroadband can transfer data at up to 432 kilobits per second, but even that’s a bit slow for Web surfing. But, experts say, for e-mail using a laptop or even your own BlackBerry, the services are perfect.

The 432-kbps data rate of SwiftBroadband isn’t the major reason
the service seems too slow for full-fledged Internet access. Rather, it’s the request-reply nature of the Web and the fact that Inmarsat’s satellites orbit about 24,000 miles above the planet that causes a logjam of zeros and ones going back and forth from land earth stations to the satellites and back down to your airplane, which could be flying almost anywhere in the world. The performance enhancement package solves that problem by eliminating a lot of the unnecessary transmissions that are designed into normal Web traffic.

Swift64 and SwiftBroadband use different satellite networks, so their footprints are slightly different, but services are available nearly anywhere in the world except at the poles. Many users of Swift64 have bonded multiple channels to boost their speeds, but at a high cost: Swift64 costs $8 per minute per channel to access. Add multiple channels and the bills can add up in a hurry.

A story that was a favorite at the conference was the tale of a senior vice president for a Fortune 1000 company, who once flew from Singapore to New York with both Swift64 pipelines open the entire time–this occurred unbeknownst to him since he used the connection for only about the first 20 minutes of the flight. The error was discovered only when the company got a bill for $16,000 worth of Internet access for that single trip.

SwiftBroadband charges by the amount of data that’s transmitted rather than time in use, so despite being a faster service it’s actually less expensive to use.
Downloading a one-megabyte file with SwiftBroadband costs about $8 versus $16 for two minutes of Swift64 connection time. But SwiftBroadband also means having to upgrade your onboard satcom equipment and antenna. If you’re already using Swift64 it may be hard to justify the move, particularly since SwiftBroadband does not yet support oceanic safety services between pilots and ATC–a nice benefit of Swift64 and other Inmarsat satcom systems. But that capability is coming soon to SwiftBroadband, Inmarsat says.

The hot trend among users of either service is e-mail access with a BlackBerry or iPhone. Some extra hardware is required to get this capability to work (such as an onboard Wi-Fi connection), but once passengers try it they love it. “My boss doesn’t want to surf the Web anyway,” said the chief of maintenance for a corporate operator with a fleet of Gulfstreams. “Those guys just want to send that five-line e-mail back and forth with people on the ground for the whole flight. If you’re just doing that, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband work great.”

Honeywell was one of the first to offer BlackBerry connections for its satcom gear, but most of the major satcom equipment manufacturers have followed suit. Still, this seems like rocket science, with the added complexity of TCP/IP protocols all occurring in the confines of an object jetting through the sky at 500 miles per hour.
Sometimes just getting a BlackBerry to work in flight can seem like a miracle.
Experts offer these tips for making sure your Swift64 or SwiftBroadband installation goes smoothly:

Talk directly with the equipment manufacturers about what you want to use the service for, the computers and PDAs you’ll be using and corporate security features you may have installed on your own network.

Make sure the maintenance center where you have the equipment installed has experience with satcom installations and troubleshooting.
Get your own IT department involved in the process from the beginning; many times a good IT professional within your organization can communicate things about your network that can head off problems before they start.

Make sure your IT people receive some specific training in Swift64 and SwiftBroadband or partner with a trusted satcom service provider that knows all the tips and tricks to make the system function efficiently.