SwiftBroadband great for e-mail, not for Web surfing

Farnborough Air Show » 2008
July 16, 2008, 9:08 AM

Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband satellite Internet service is available on only a small handful of business jets, and one of them is here at TAG Aviation on the far side of the airfield.

A demonstration of Internet access aboard the Fortune 50 company’s Boeing Business Jet on the second day of Farnborough confirmed that the Inmarsat service works well for Web-mail-type applications, but can be frustratingly slow when trying to bring up content-heavy sites like CNN.com.

Installed aboard this airplane are an EMS Satcom HSD-400 data terminal and AMT-50 tail-mounted antenna, used to access a single channel of SwiftBroadband. Typical data rates experienced in flight are between 200 and 300 kps, a speed that seemed inadequate for most types of Web surfing during a demonstration on the tarmac on Tuesday.

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 allows users to bond a maximum of two SwiftBroadband channels to prevent network congestion. That would provide data rates of between 400 and 600 kilobits per second, which still may not be ideal for impatient executives who are used to much faster access on the ground. Still, 600 kbps is adequate for many types of applications that are 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.

It’s likely that many passengers will be satisfied with e-mail access (especially 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. You’ll be better off waiting until you reach the hotel.

It’s worth noting that there are a number of ways to squeeze extra speed from the 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 savvy IT pros.

Connecting through a remote-access service during Tuesday’s demo, 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.

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