Bizjet Wi-Fi choices keep expanding

 - October 13, 2010, 6:44 AM

There are now more ways than ever to connect to the Internet in flight thanks to the growing number of airborne data services available for installation in business jets. From Aircell’s GoGo Biz and Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband services to ViaSat’s Yonder Broadband and others, Web-addicted passengers no longer have to worry about being able to log on after takeoff. 

Aircell rolled out its GoGo highspeed Internet service to the airline market a couple of years ago. The service is now available on more than 1,000 airliners–and the number is growing. Aircell also has an expanding order backlog for GoGo Biz systems awaiting installation in business aircraft, said to exceed 1,000 systems. The Aircell service is broadcast by a network of ground stations and is therefore limited to use above 10,000 feet over the continental U.S., a limitation that has given some buyers pause.

Aircell’s highest-profile customers ­in bizav are fractional firms NetJets and Flexjet. NetJets recently announced it will install GoGo Biz hardware in 250 business jets as a start and said it will also add the capability to every new airplane it orders from this point forward. Flexjet, meanwhile, announced last month that it will add GoGo Biz capability to all of its fractional program aircraft. Wi-Fi Internet connections will be provided to NetJets and Flexjet shareowners as a no-cost amenity.

Aircell’s GoGo Biz service is likely to start catching on with more business jet operators, given the backing of NetJets and Flexjet as well as charter providers Clay Lacy Aviation and XOJet, which have also placed bulk orders. The hardware needed to connect (two black boxes and two small antennas) lists for $85,000 total.

Installation brings the bill to somewhere around $120,000. What buyers get for that price are maximum download speeds of about 3.2 megabits per second, rivaling what many passengers are probably used to on the ground.

Aircell service plans include Ultraspeed Unlimited, Ultraspeed 100 and Ultraspeed 40. The Unlimited plan costs $1,995 a month with no restriction on data usage. Ultraspeed 100 is $895 per month for 100 megabytes of data transfer, with additional megabytes priced at $7.95 each. Ultraspeed 40 gives passengers 40 megabytes of data each month for $395 (about $13 a day), with additional megabytes costing $8.95 each.

For worldwide connectivity after takeoff, a good choice is Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband, a satellite-based service that offers slower connections than Aircell’s GoGo (SwiftBroadband tops out at 432 kbps) but is available almost everywhere. SwiftBroadband service providers offer several pricing options that allow customers to pay for the megabytes of bandwidth they use rather than the amount of time the system is turned on. That helps eliminate billing surprises at the end of the month.
 
Hardware Options
Prices for the SwiftBroadband service and hardware are higher than what you’ll shell out for GoGo access (SwiftBroadband costs about $8.50 per megabyte and the hardware can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars), but the ability to log on worldwide (except over the poles, where there are coverage gaps) can easily trump the higher costs for passengers who need access to e-mail and managed Internet outside the U.S. Manufacturers of SwiftBroadband-compatible hardware include EMS Aviation, Thrane & Thrane, TrueNorth Avionics, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Chelton Satcom and Thales.

For those buyers requiring faster connections worldwide, ViaSat’s Yonder Broadband can meet that need–for a price. The Yonder Ku-band service provides data connections in flight of up to 10 megabits per second. The onboard hardware and tail-mounted antenna cost about $800,000 and the monthly service fee is $6,000 for unlimited use. 

Not to be outdone, Inmarsat has an­nounced plans to introduce a Ka-band satellite broadband service by 2014 that it said will be far faster, cost less to access and require smaller antennas than competing Ku-band services. Offering a 50 megabit-per-second maximum data rate in flight, Inmarsat’s Global Xpress service will link through the Inmarsat I-5 network, which will consist of three Boeing-built satellites, each with 89 fixed spot beams capable of shifting bandwidth to meet demand spikes anywhere coverage is available.