Satellite communications capabilities on board commercial aircraft have advanced rapidly in recent years with airline passengers using broadband Internet, WiFi, text messaging and mobile phones in flight and now business aircraft users are starting to reap the rewards. Business jet manufacturers are offering customers the latest technology, with several third-party suppliers providing on-board equipment which is viable (in terms of cost and weight) for midsized aircraft, and in some cases for smaller turbine aircraft.
While the two leading satellite networks are Inmarsat (Booth No. 529) and Iridium, it is Aircell (Booth No. 260) which has led the way by introducing high-speed Internet access on mainline U.S. carriers, using Iridium to extend it for use on international routes. Aircell employs a network of ground stations and has built 93 new facilities in the U.S. in the past two years to support the high-speed network.
This expansion followed the company’s successful bid for 3Mhz of the 4Mhz bandwidth from Verizon Airphone (MagnaStar) in the 2006 bandwidth auction. The first aircraft WiFi hotspot was introduced in August 2008.
According to Andy Geist, senior vice president for business aviation solutions, the number of Aircell Axxess systems installed just passed 7,000 worldwide, including installations by business aircraft OEMs such as Gulfstream and Cessna, and fractional providers such as NetJets and Flight Options. Axxess is the Wi-Fi piece of the overall system, which still needs a data receiver before passengers can connect to the Internet.
Aircell’s high-speed Internet equipment for business aviation is in development and is to be introduced later this year. The first ATG 4000 units ($45,000 list-price for the base system) are due to be delivered in July and are currently undergoing certification testing for STC/PMA approval. Aircell said it is set to launch its alpha testing phase shortly and an extensive protocol of flight and usability tests will be carried out aboard actual aircraft.
Outside the U.S., the Aircell service will offer high-speed Internet access starting in July using Inmarsat SwiftBroadband, powered by Thrane & Thrane (Booth No. 395) with its Aero-SB Lite system. According to the Danish company’s aeronautical brand manager, Jen Marts, this compact and lightweight system is a true “office in the sky” with high quality, low-cost voice, data speeds up to 432 kbps and wireless capabilities including the use of WiFi BlackBerries or other PDA devices. Inmarsat type approval for the Aero SB-Lite was received in December last year and was followed by installation on the first U.S.-registered aircraft.
Geist said the company entered the Iridium market around six years ago to provide global telephone access, while starting to shut down its cellular network and develop its Axxess product, based on an Ethernet backbone. “The Axxess idea is Ethernet on aircraft so it is network neutral because this depends on the mission of the aircraft. We can use Iridium, Ku-band or Aircell in the U.S. for high-speed access,” he explained.
Axxess comes standard with two Iridium channels, and if the aircraft is based outside the U.S., and the customer wants high-speed data, Aircell can install SwiftBroadband on the aircraft. “Inmarsat has completed its I-4 constellation, so we’ll start shipping our first SwiftBroadband this summer,” he said.
“The aircraft can basically have a WiFi hotspot,” said Geist. “All the billing is done through Aircell so the customer has a one-stop shop and a monthly bill. Fractional providers offer the service within their fractional programs; some bill the customers, but most don’t.” Iridium calls cost $1.50 a minute through Aircell.
Geist explained that the cost of installing its systems varies greatly among aircraft of different sizes, adding that with the advent of SwiftBroadband there has been a significant decrease in equipment cost, from $300,000 to $400,000 for Swift64 to around $85,000 for the new system. “That’s a revolutionary cost change and now it is affordable for any turbine aircraft,” he commented. “Also, the antenna size is much smaller, weighing around one-and-a-quarter pounds.”
EMS Satcom (Booth No. 529) revealed its new eNfusion AMT-700 SwiftBroadband-ready antenna at the AEA Convention in Texas last month. The company also announced in December that it is to acquire Formation Inc., a provider of airborne wireless network products, partly in order to bolster its aero-connectivity capabilities.
OnAir (Booth No. 7080), a Geneva-based Airbus/SITA joint venture, started offering in-flight mobile voice and data services in December 2007. Since then passengers on more than 6,000 flights have used OnAir services.
Chief commercial officer Stephan Egli said OnAir is turning its attention to business aviation. It has two product categories: standard mobile telecommunications as available on the ground, including services such as sending and receiving of SMS messages, and an Internet product offering WiFi for long-range aircraft cabins.
OnAir uses the Inmarsat satellites, the third of which [next generation I-4 satellite] went up in February. “Only OnAir is utilizing it, and it has the latest technology and highest bandwidth,” said Egli.
The company has signed its first business aviation customer and expects to complete its first aircraft installation in the near future. Egli anticipates several other commitments from operators of VIP Airbus A320s.
OnAir sees no need to offer Iridium compatibility. “We don’t need it and so we purely focus on Inmarsat,” said Egli. “SwiftBroadband offers the two critical things–global coverage and capacity of up to 864 kbps [432 kbps per channel], which is far higher than [Inmarsat’s] Classic Aero and Swift 64, which is only 64 kbps.”
The company has been looking at offering its services for smaller business aircraft following requests from operators of types such as Dassault Falcons and Gulfstreams. Egli said that although he doesn’t exclude the possibility of serving smaller aircraft, there is “very little interest.” The necessary equipment weighs around 150 pounds for an Airbus Corporate Jetliner, but is lightening as technology advances.
The main sticking point is certification and there has to be sufficient market interest for the manufacturer to want to certificate a particular aircraft type to have the equipment installed. This requires a supplementary type certificate (STC) approval via the relevant regulator, that is, the EASA in Europe.
OnAir billing is far simpler than for previous satellite services, claimed Egli. “OnAir is like a separate country in the aircraft, so we have roaming agreements with mobile operators across the world–Orange and SwissCom for example,” he explained. “OnAir acts as the middleman, billing the mobile operators who in turn may charge their mobile-using customers with a markup on the price. It’s the same as [a UK mobile] O2 phone in the U.S. using AT&T.”
Egli said the systems have a return on investment, giving “a nice little stream of ancillary revenue while addressing the very urgent need for people to stay connected.” He reckoned that an operator installing OnAir could break even on the investment in as little as three years, depending on usage.
According to Jeff Saucedo, vice president product sales with International Communications Group (ICG), weight of the basic onboard satcom equipment has decreased from 70 pounds to just 20 pounds over the last decade. This means that it is now physically possible to install the equipment in an aircraft as small as a King Air.
At the same time, the fact that the antenna size has changed from being large and bulky to round and only around 3.5 inches in diameter has helped enormously. This, said Saucedo, came when Iridium was introduced and “people realized that satcom voice was not just for large airframes any more.”
ICG (Booth No. 478) uses the Iridium network and typically assigns an Iridium telephone number to a particular aircraft. The company has around 3,500 installations, about 85 to 90 percent of them on business jets. “The joy of working with bizav [operators] is that they tend to do their homework and will spend the money on making themselves more productive,” Saucedo said.
“When we were looking at doing the next generation of equipment, we knew that we had to be on a global constellation and not spot beams, which are limited primarily to the northern hemisphere,” he explained. Iridium has 66 low-Earth-orbit satellites to make it the only truly global satcom constellation, and will have its Iridium NEXT constellation fully operational by 2016.
“We were first to market with just about all the Iridium technologies,” Saucedo told EBACE Convention News. “That includes fax, ACARS, cordless handsets, true PBX and so on. Right now we are closely following the development of the Iridium NEXT system. We’re very well in touch with Iridium and take part in user groups.”
According to Saucedo, a typical two-channel, four-handset system costs in the region of $50,000 to $65,000.