Satcom Direct sees growing demand for SwiftBroadband

 - March 31, 2010, 5:30 AM

Satellite communications service provider Satcom Direct has expanded its portfolio of exclusive add-ons and upgrades to the point where some customers might have a hard time keeping up with all the changes. Fortunately for them, the company hosts an annual customer conference aimed at bringing users up to speed.

Held this year in Las Vegas from March 2 to 5, the event not only highlighted all that Satcom Direct has to offer, but yielded some interesting industry news as well.

After some early teething troubles, Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband satellite communications service is winning praise from customers, namely corporate flight departments that have added the gear needed to connect.

Inmarsat reports there are now 11,000 active aeronautical satcom terminals operating around the world, but only a small percentage of these are SwiftBroadband terminals. The majority of its revenue in this sector (more than 65 percent) comes from government and military users, who still prefer the Swift64 service.

A small but growing portion of Inmarsat’s aero customer base are users of SwiftBroadband, which operates over the satcom provider’s new I4 satellites, three of which orbit 22,500 miles in space over Atlantic, Pacific and Indian ocean regions. Each is the size of a London double-decker bus and together they cost more than $1 billion to build and launch.

According to operators attending the Satcom Direct customer conference, the key to making sure SwiftBroadband’s introduction on the company airplane goes smoothly lies in involving the people from the IT department early in the process.

SwiftBroadband provides connections in the cabin at speeds up to 432 kilobits per second, versus the 64-kilobit-per-channel rate of Swift64. SwiftBroadband is also less expensive than Swift64, whose users oftentimes bond multiple channels to fatten the data pipe to the airplane but end up paying hefty connection charges.

Still, many operators are apparently content to continue with the Swift64 service, reasoning that it works fairly well and the onboard equipment is already bought and paid for. Others say they would prefer not to be first adopters (“guinea pigs,” they call it) for the nascent SwiftBroadband service. “There are always teething problems when a new offering like SwiftBroadband comes along,” confided one chief of maintenance at the conference, “but I think Inmarsat has worked through most of the stuff with SwiftBroadband and it’s working for us now after a difficult start.”

Even for business jet operators who are happy with their Swift64 service, there may be no choice but to migrate to SwiftBroadband. Inmarsat is already looking forward to its next satellite constellation, and that will mean winding down services on the Swift64 satellites, officials say.

That’s likely music to the ears of Matt Desch, the CEO of Iridium, which is planning its own next-generation satellite constellation, appropriately named Iridium Next. Desch was a presenter at the Satcom Direct conference, where he confirmed to attendees that launches for the network of 66 cross-linked low-earth-orbit satellites are set to begin in 2014. Lockheed Martin and Thales/Alenia are competing to design and build the satellites.  

The Iridium Next system will be backward compatible with current Iridium hardware, Desch promised. He said the new equipment for aircraft targeted at around $30,000 will allow for higher bandwidth data transfers, possibly topping out at 512 kbps. To fund such an ambitious project (the original Iridium satellites cost Motorola $5 billion to build and launch; Desch thinks he can do the same thing for about $2 billion) Iridium has gone public and is in negotiations with sovereign export credit agencies to secure additional funding.

“We may be able to finalize all of our funding needs for the next 20 years in the coming four to six months,” Desch said. “Once we do that, we will announce the selection” of who will build the Iridium Next satellites.  

Demystifying Satcom

A lot of what Satcom Direct does for its customers can be traced to the core of the problem with satellite communications: it’s complicated stuff. When the IT folks at a large East Coast pharmaceutical company couldn’t figure out why they were having such a hard time connecting to the Internet through the airplane’s new SwiftBroadband link, Satcom Direct invited them to its headquarters in Satellite Beach, Fla., to delve into the problem. The answer turned out to be the corporate VPN configured on the executives’ laptops. These computers worked fine in Satcom Direct’s lab, but not in the airplane. Once Satcom Direct troubleshooters traced the issue to its source, the router on the airplane was reconfigured and the Internet connection now works.

At the customer conference, Satcom Direct founder Jim Jensen announced that the company now offers a 16-hour training course at its Satellite Beach headquarters that is FAA approved for inspection authorization (IA) renewal. The three-day course is free to Satcom Direct customers, Jensen said. “It’s just something we decided to give away” as a value-added service.

Jensen also revealed details of several new online tools for customers. The company’s Plane Simple Web site includes updated usage reports, configuration information, a Swift64 congestion monitor–all of it available on a mobile device. Now, Plane Simple Plus gives users a snapshot of their usage for the month in a graphic that looks a little like a fuel gauge on the screen. “You can look at where you are for the month and decide if you need to change your plan,” Jensen said. “It’s a great tool for budgeting.”

Satcom Direct also offers an online SwiftBroadband calculator that demystifies the service in terms of what it really costs to use. Customers can list the things they plan to do with SwiftBroadband and view various rate plans and what they will cost. Another interesting value-added service announced at the conference was an online satcom speed test tool that is optimized for SwiftBroadband linked through Satcom Direct’s AeroX data compression service.

Jensen also noted that interest in the company’s FlightDeck Freedom service–a datalink service that works over a VHF, Inmarsat or Iridium link for one all-inclusive annual price–has been growing quickly since it was introduced a year-and-a-half ago. FlightDeck Freedom was designed to let customers use their preferred trip-planning specialist (all the major providers, including the free Fltplan. com Web site) to transmit flight-critical data to the flight crew, including pre-departure clearances, digital ATIS, oceanic clearances, current airport weather, graphical weather and flight plan routes. Dispatchers and maintenance personnel can monitor the aircraft through automated takeoff and landing reports and e-mail messages to and from the aircraft.