Satcom Direct Conference Answers Satellite Questions

 - April 3, 2013, 12:40 AM

Satcom Direct held its 9th annual conference in early February, bringing together not only its own customers but also a variety of hardware manufacturers and other companies that benefit from and provide services via satcom. The conference grows every year and is evidence that the steady pace of satellite communications development has led to a greater variety of airborne telecom services–and even some reductions in pricing–for aircraft operators.

“We’re in violent expansion mode,” said Curt Gray, Satcom Direct vice president of satcom technologies and development. A service provider for satcom users, the company has grown to more than 100 employees and recently purchased a 13-acre campus where everyone will be working together in one consolidated facility. Next to that, Satcom Direct is building a new 25,000-sq-ft data center that meets compliance standards that apply to highly secure and reliable data centers such as those that underlie Google’s infrastructure. “We’re going from 16 big-rack servers to 132 in phase one,” Gray said. “That’s phase one of four, so huge growth [is coming].”

International Reach

Last year Satcom Direct added local support around the world, opening new offices in Farnborough; São Paulo, Brazil; and Dubai. In the second quarter this year a new office opens in Hong Kong, and more international offices are planned. “These offices are available when you’re traveling internationally,” said David Greenhill, co-founder and president, “if you ever need anything.”

“It’s all about customer reach,” said Chris Moore, vice president of international sales. Without facilities near where customers fly, it’s harder to hear feedback on their satcom experiences, he explained, and more difficult “to develop customer relationships and make sure we’ve got the right level of services for them.” An important part of this effort is also hiring satellite experts who speak the local language and understand problems faced by customers.

“Hong Kong is a massive hub for Asia,” said Moore. “The Asia market is rapidly expanding, so [we’re] making sure we’ve got a good presence there and the right people in that office.” Satcom Direct plans to hire Mandarin speakers for that office, too, because the China market is also growing quickly.

With offices all over the world and lab facilities in Farnborough and Dubai, Satcom Direct is able to provide 24/7 service. “If you have any issues, we can test them on the bench,” Moore said. Satcom Direct also offers regular seminars and training for customers, pilots and technicians. A new training program involves a partnership with FlightSafety International, for training Gulfstream pilots and technicians at FlightSafety’s Savannah, Ga. learning center. The classroom setup can also be used as a lab to troubleshoot satcom problems, and Satcom Direct hopes to mimic this setup with other aircraft platforms.

New Services and Capabilities

At the conference, Satcom Direct highlighted new services and capabilities. A new agreement with Aircraft Performance Group (APG) will enable APG customers to access runway analysis and weight-and-balance data from the aircraft via satcom, instead of relying solely on ground-based Internet access.

The 10-digit Global One Number that Satcom Direct offers customers has been improved, so users can select a local number and country code to match where the aircraft is based. Global One numbers are available for more than 50 countries and 4,000 cities.

Operators with satcom-equipped aircraft often complain that modern mobile devices, which passengers forget to switch off, inadvertently use expensive bandwidth during flights. Satcom Direct’s SkyShield applies filters to block unwanted data from being delivered to the aircraft. Three preconfigured filters are available, and Satcom Direct can also help customers develop custom filters.

The newest version of Satcom Direct’s FlightDeck 360 iPad app was released just before the conference. FlightDeck 360 “brings datalink capabilities to the iPad,” according to Scott Hamilton, vice president of business and strategic development. For a satcom-equipped aircraft without datalink capabilities, FlightDeck 360 allows pilots to use the iPad to view flight plans and upload them to the ForeFlight moving-map app and receive pre-departure and oceanic clearances and digital ATIS messages. The app also can be used for emailing, communicating with Satcom Direct support personnel while in flight and viewing coverage areas for satcom and Sita VHF networks. “If you have Internet access and no datalink,” Hamilton said, “it’s a great way to get those functions.”

The two days of the Satcom Direct conference were filled with more than enough information to satisfy anyone wanting to learn about satellite communications for aviation. Updates were provided by key aviation telecom service and equipment providers, including Inmarsat, Iridium, ViaSat, Aircell, Rockwell Collins, Universal Avionics, International Communications Group, Cobham and Honeywell. And many of the presentations offered in-depth information on upcoming mandates that will affect international travelers, such as controller pilot datalink communications (CPDLC), future air navigation system (Fans), automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C) and VHF datalink mode 2 (VDL2).

Satcom Direct introduced its first certified hardware product at the conference, the new Satcom Direct Router. The router will work with any satellite constellation, including new ones such as Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, seamlessly switching between networks. Operators will be able to split network traffic, for example, setting the router to allow a VIP passenger to access the fastest and most expensive satcom system, while other passengers could use a lower-cost channel to keep expenses in check. The router operates on both 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi frequencies and offers two sim card slots for access to ground-based 3G/4G cellular networks.

First deliveries of the new router–retail price is $27,000–are slated to begin next month. Satcom Direct plans to obtain supplemental type certificate approval for installation of the router in most aircraft types.