Business Aviation Insider

two men in cabin with e-notepad

Oct. 12, 2017

Aviation connectivity achieves major milestones in 2017, making the home office a reality in the air.

Business Aviation is rapidly moving into a new age of connectivity. Not so long ago, connectivity aboard even the largest business jets was limited to things like basic internet access, email and maybe connecting to a social media website. Many other typical business activities – such as downloading large files, streaming video, conducting live webcast meetings with the home office or with customers, or making phone calls – weren’t possible.

All that is changing.

Today, regardless of whether you’re flying in North America, internationally over vast stretches of the Atlantic or a mixture of both, more providers are offering connectivity services that allow you to do pretty much anything on a business aircraft that you can do in your ground-based office.

At the same time, providers are simplifying their services by offering plans that resemble the service packages offered by cell phone and cable TV broadband companies, where customers can purchase plans offering a variety of connectivity services that are priced according to user needs.

“Today, connectivity providers are offering customers more choice and more flexible pricing models,” said Charlie Clark, business development manager of global communications at Panasonic Avionics Corp., and member of NBAA’s Connectivity Subcommittee. “They’re not offering one-size-fits-all models, and are more customer-centric,” she said.

Chris Moore, chief commercial officer of Satcom Direct, adds: “Some clients want quicker, richer data and more of it to support demands for streaming video, realtime gaming and other data-heavy applications. In this case, we will tailor a package to their needs.

Others just need communications access, so really, cost is not something that we focus on. What we see is that it’s never about price, but about productivity, efficiency and safety.”

One example is Rockwell Collins’ ARINCDirect flight support service. It offers a single, comprehensive suite of services and support for streamlined, flight operations worldwide. ARINCDirect flight support services provide flight planning, international trip support, cabin connectivity and flight operations management, according to David Stanley, Rockwell Collins vice president of sales and marketing.

These pricing models also make it easier for clients to budget costs, since they’re paying one set price, so long as they don’t exceed the amount of data purchased or use services not included in their plan. For some customers, such as charter operators, connectivity service providers also offer plans tailored to their specific needs.

“Charter operators who are billing their customers by the hour, want to bill the internet by the hour because that’s their business model,” saidJames Pearson, director of global business development at ViaSat.

“So we support them with hourly billing for that. They don’t have to worry about how much data was used. They just know what the price is for an hour, and they build that into their pricing for their customers.”

Business aviation customer expectations are driving these changes. Increasingly, connectivity providers say their clients want the same connectivity experience aboard an aircraft as they have at their home and office.

“Connectivity is pretty much a given,” said Gary Harpster, senior avionics sales representative of Duncan Aviation. “Passengers want it and expect it. It is no longer considered a luxury, and in many cases, is considered [a requirement].

“A charter aircraft without Wi-Fi capability simply won’t see the activity it would if it had Wi-Fi,” Harpster continued. “And aircraft put on the market sell better if they have Wi-Fi. Duncan Aviation’s aircraft sales team says that 75-80 percent of buyers of private aircraft want an internet connection.”

While it’s difficult to estimate the percentage of business aircraft flying today that are “connected,” it is safe to say that the majority of them flying are – especially in the mid- and large-cabin categories.

“Satcom Direct currently supplies 7,000 aircraft worldwide with connectivity solutions,” said Moore. “We anticipate that general aviation will be the next big push for connectivity, as today the choices for this sector are very limited.

“In the future, all aircraft will become connected. It is the natural progression of technology, coupled with an overwhelming need for people to be connected all of the time,” said Moore.

What’s Driving Expansion

Within the general aviation sector, it’s fair to say that business aviation is rapidly driving the connectivity push and expanding it into areas thought of as purely “blue sky” five or six years ago. The reason is simple, according to Sergio Aguirre, vice president and general manager of Gogo Business Aviation.

Today, connectivity providers are offering customers more choice and more flexible pricing models.

Charlie Clark, NBAA Connectivity Subcommittee

“The first driver to connectivity in the aircraft really was to increase productivity,” explained Aguirre. “At the end of the day, these [business] aircraft are designed to increase the efficiency of the passengers and the companies around the world who use them.”

However, Aguirre said that these days, customers are more tied to their devices than ever before, using them as a lifeline to their home lives and also to keep informed about important news that could affect their business.

“Now, connectivity is a part of our everyday life, not just as it relates to work,” he said. “Look anywhere and people are on their smartphones, and they’re not all working. Some of them are staying in touch with their families. Some of them are just watching the news clips. So, it affects every facet of our lives.”

This growing demand for connectivity services is impacting all aspects of the business aviation market, including suppliers such as Mid-Continent Instruments Co., which provides power supply equipment to aircraft OEMs and after-market installers.

“The business aircraft is becoming more of an extension of the company office, allowing employees to utilize their time efficiently,” said Tom Genovese, senior account manager of True Blue Power, a division of Mid-Continent. “The demand for in-flight connectivity is at an all-time high, and that requires power sources to keep personal electronic devices fully charged during flight.”

In fact, Genovese said that over the last three years alone, Mid-Continent has seen a growing number of flight departments, aircraft manufacturers and airlines installing the company’s USB charging ports, DC-to-AC inverters and outlets in the cockpit to provide power to charge electronic flight bags and personal electronic devices.

Connectivity Basics

Given the rapid pace of technological change in connectivity, it’s understandable if business aircraft operators are a bit intimidated by the idea of installing a new connectivity system aboard an aircraft. That’s also true of those who may be upgrading a system that only five years ago was considered state-of-the art but now is outdated.

The market is cluttered with information, and sometimes it’s difficult to digest it all, especially for the majority of those users who don’t understand the technology. However, the following are some connectivity basics.

When it comes to inflight-to-terrestrial connectivity, communications typically go through an air-to-ground (ATG) network. Signals to and from terrestrial ground stations connect to the aircraft through an antenna placed on the lower fuselage of the aircraft. Then the signal is distributed within the aircraft using Wi-Fi access points.

In terms of satellite communications, there are three “bands” that are used, which are the radio frequencies used to and from the satellite:

  • L-band uses frequencies in the 1 to 2GHz range
  • Ku-band utilizes approximately 12-18GHz
  • Ka-band services uses the 26.5-40GHz segment of the electromagnetic spectrum

Higher frequencies offer more bandwidth, so Ka-band offers more digital bandwidth than Ku, which in turn should give greater bandwidth than L-band.

A typical satellite-based system features:

  • A satellite antenna installed on the exterior of the aircraft and a radome to cover it
  • Hardware that keeps the antenna fixed in the proper direction of the satellite
  • An onboard server, which connects the service provider and passengers’ personal devices
  • A router to establish a cabin network that provides coverage within the cabin

Aircraft Constraints

When choosing a connectivity service, it pays to know your aircraft. Understand your space limitations, both in the cabin and on the plane. Fortunately, many providers have or are introducing low profile antennas that work on most aircraft.

For example, Iridium offers an antenna that’s about 1 inch tall, 4 inches wide and 10 inches long.

“It fits on the fuselage of any size and shape aircraft,” said Brian Pemberton, vice president and general manager of Iridium. “That’s going to be able to provide a user 700 kilobytes per second of speed, which is more than enough for basic internet, email, social media and those kinds of functions.”

With all this in mind, the first step in choosing the correct connectivity system is to evaluate how you use your aircraft. Is it flown mostly in North America, or do you also fly internationally over the ocean? Is your aircraft carrying only a few passengers, or are you typically transporting 10 or more people?

Consider what your passengers want to achieve while flying. “You assume that people want experiences that are similar to those they have on the ground,” said Kurt Weidemeyer, vice president of Inmarsat Business Aviation.

Ryan Stone at SmartSky Networks, which plans to roll out its air-to-ground True 4G LTE Inflight Connectivity service in mid-2018, said when evaluating systems and services, buy the newest and best equipment that fits your budget.

“When you’re putting a system on an airplane today and evaluating your options, you have to consider not just what you want to do today, but what you want to do in a few years,” Stone said. “Imagine we’re past January 1, 2020. Can you imagine being the guy who doesn’t have 4G-based connectivity in that world?”

Moore at Satcom Direct agrees. “Considerations include the need to ‘future proof’ – to try and anticipate what will be the need in two or three years in terms of flight deck and cabin management systems, as well as connectivity that will synchronize all elements of flight. This is something we anticipate will be the direction that connectivity will take in the next decade.”

For that reason, look for systems that are scalable, which means they easily can be upgraded as new equipment and services are introduced.

“The new systems are scalable, which is a great benefit for operators,” said Duncan Aviation’s Harpster. “Since the new systems are software-driven, they contain all the capabilities of the system. When services are upgraded, installers use key codes to activate the new services.”

To put these new capabilities into perspective, think back 10 or 15 years ago to the connectivity equipment and services you probably were using at home or in your office.

“Scalable is a good way to think about it,” said Pearson at ViaSat. “Because when you started your home office you might have started way back and had a 6400-baud connection and that was good. Then 5-10 megabytes, that seemed good. But now you probably have a 100-megabyte connection.”

Regulation Challenges

Several connectivity providers said aviation’s regulatory environment inhibits the introduction of new technologies, which is another factor users need to consider when choosing new equipment and services.

“Aviation, because of the certification processes and everything else, is inherently going to lag what is going to happen terrestrially,” said Stone. “So you’ve got to absolutely be installing the fastest system you can today, because that’s what you’re going to need to fulfill your expectations, not just today, but three years from now and five years from now.”

In fact, Aguirre at Gogo said the regulatory environment is one of the key challenges aviation connectivity providers face as they work to keep apace of consumer expectations.

“The process of introducing new technologies in aviation is slower just because of the need for regulatory compliance of safety, validation and certification,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to run fiber optics in a neighborhood than to figure out how to launch new satellites and certify new equipment. So aviation is behind the consumer-based connectivity, if you will.

“But the rate at which it is improving is significant, and we are finding that it requires a lot of work and a lot of investment that Gogo has been making so that we can stay up with expectations,” Aguirre continued. “It’s not easy. It’s very difficult and costly.”

A charter aircraft without Wi-Fi capability simply won’t see the activity it would if it had Wi-Fi. And aircraft put on the market sell better if they have Wi-Fi.

Gary Harpster, Senior Avionics Sales Representative, Duncan Aviation

Budget Considerations

Another important consideration in choosing a connectivity system for a business aircraft is, of course, system cost.

“Understand your budget,” said Iridium’s Pemberton. “Are you prepared to put $500,000 into something? Are you more budget conscious? Are you not so concerned about the upfront [connectivity] speed?”

Finally, Pemberton and others advise users to do their research, and be skeptical of wild product claims.

“Look past all of the propaganda and the fancy information sheets and stuff. What really performs and really does what it says it’s going to do? Over the last several years there has been such hype around internet connectivity for the back of the aircraft, whether it be business jets or commercial aircraft.”

There was a time when service providers advised their customers to develop a connectivity use plan to limit internet usage, especially when flying across the ocean where internet services are provided via satellite. To ensure that passengers flying in the cabin had ample bandwidth for their connectivity needs, they advised the crew to limit their internet use. Everyone was advised to turn off application update functions to avoid massive data downloads that could tie up bandwidth while in the air for sometimes hours.

Considerations include the need to ‘future proof’ – to try and anticipate what will be the need in two or three years in terms of flight deck and cabin management systems, as well as connectivity that will synchronize all elements of flight.

Chris Moore, Chief Commercial Officer, Satcom Direct

But that’s not the case today. Whether you’re accessing an air-to-ground network flying from, say, Los Angeles to New York, or using a satellite-based system, connectivity services today, by and large, enable users to do what they want, when they want while enroute, thanks to the expansion of many terrestrial air-to-ground services to 4G LTE technology and the addition of new high-throughput satellites by several of the world’s leading satcom providers.

“We’ve seen in the past some people talk about how to budget your bandwidth,” said Pearson at ViaSat. “But with the data allowances, we offer of 100 gigs a month or 200 gigs a month; it’s really difficult to go over that limit. Nobody has to think about that anymore. The budgeting people, the pilot, the flight attendants, they can all use the internet and they don’t have to worry about going over the allowances.”

Technology Investments

As always, investments in new satellites and other technologies are behind these amazing improvements, say the experts.

“The main development we see that will support improved access and performance is the increase in bandwidth provided by an improved satellite network,” said Moore at Satcom Direct. “With the launch of Inmarsat’s i5 satellite and the increased scope of the Global Xpress network, the Ka band solution is proving popular with aircraft that are flying long-range international missions and need always-on connectivity.”

In May, Inmarsat successfully launched a fourth satellite for its i5 satellite constellation. Inmarsat and Boeing Network and Space Systems, the manufacturer of i5 F4, are now raising the spacecraft to a geostationary orbit, at which point the satellite will deploy its solar arrays and reflectors, and undergo payload testing.

And more satellites are coming at Inmarsat.

“We’ve announced three additional satellites that are coming online by 2020,” said Weidemeyer. “We are ratcheting everything up and making sure we’re putting new assets in the sky that are much more efficient than what we have up there today. And we’re laying in capacity in all the high-density traffic routes.”

Adds Weidemeyer: “Our packages we have today where we’re guaranteeing the speeds, we can tell a customer we can guarantee the equipment and the speed 10 years from now.”

Meanwhile ViaSat in June launched its ViaSat 2 satellite, which the company said will offer both high-capacity bandwidth and wide coverage.

four men with e-tablet in cabin

“ViaSat 2 will be stationed by the end of this year and operational very early in 2018, so it’s right around the corner,” said Pearson. “We already have a global network, but what ViaSat 2 gives us is more layered capacity over the U.S. and gives us the higher speeds over the Atlantic that we don’t have today.”

While connectivity costs aren’t coming down, due to the ongoing investments being made to expand the connectivity infrastructure, customers certainly seem to be getting more services at a similar price, many of the experts say.

Currently, ViaSat’s system offers speeds of between 4-6 megabytes per second (mps). “ViaSat 2 takes it 16 mps over the Atlantic, Europe and the U.S.,” Pearson said. Iridium also is investing heavily in new satellites and other technologies.

“We’ve already spent $100 million plus to upgrade the teleport network, which is how we bring the voice and data out of the satellites, and the terrestrial infrastructure,” said Pemberton.

Iridium already has placed the first two of what will be 75 Iridium Next satellites into orbit.

“Launches are scheduled to complete by mid-2018,” said Pemberton. “We expect to have satellites in operational slots by the end of 2018. We will perform flight tests in the mid-2018-time frame to prove the air worthiness of the platform and test out the speeds. By late 2018 or early 2019, depending on the certification timeline for partner equipment, we’d be looking to start commercial capability by early 2019.”

Not to be outdone, several of the industry’s leading ATG network providers also are announcing upgrades and improvements to their systems.

For example, Gogo recently announced that has received supplemental type certification and parts manufacturer approval from the FAA for its new dual-directional antennas for its Gogo AVANCE L5 system (formerly known as the Gogo Biz 4G LRU).

By connecting to the Gogo Biz 4G network, Gogo AVANCE L5 will deliver faster speeds and enhanced network capacity for live streaming video and audio, on-demand movies, personal smartphone use, real-time data for cockpit apps, and remote diagnostics and support while in flight.

“It’s upgrading the ground-based network to 4G capabilities and having the radios on board the aircraft, which increases the capacity of the system versus what customers have today, by about three times the capacity,” said Aguirre at Gogo. “We’ve already had our first entry into service.”

Gogo has about 4,500 business aircraft using its services, Aguirre said. “To give them the opportunity to upgrade from a 3G to a 4G network is significant for them,” he said.

Gogo also is expanding its Gogo 2KU satellite-based system into the business aviation sector. “Gogo launched a couple of years ago a revolutionary service on the airline side called 2KU, which has a significant throughput capability,” Aguirre said. The response, he said, has been positive.

At SmartSky Networks, which provides both air-to-ground and satellite-based connectivity services, the company is rolling out its new 4G LTE-based beam-forming network across the U.S., with an expected launch of the service expected in mid-2018, said Stone.

Stone said the service will offer much faster speeds using 16 megahertz of spectrum, compared to the 3 megahertz that has been in use. “With that much more spectrum, it’s a very fast signal to and from the airplane, and we’re doing this on an air-to-ground platform, so you’re able to do all those applications you do on the ground in the air.”

Meanwhile, Stone said the beam-forming SmartSky is using helps ensure connectivity remains strong even on high-density flight routes.

“This service won’t congest because it’s one beam per airplane, and we’re covering the country with 20,000 beams,” Stone said. “That’s way more beams than there are planes. It’s going to be a really exciting service. We’ve been doing demonstration flights. The experience when people get off the airplane is, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what we’ve been wanting.’”

When you’re putting a system on an airplane today and evaluating your options, you have to consider not just what you want to do today, but what you want to do in a few years. Imagine we’re past Jan. 1, 2020. Can you imagine being the guy who doesn’t have 4G-based connectivity in that world?

Ryan Stone, President and Director, SmartSky Networks

Satcom Direct, which offers a variety of ATG and satellite-based connectivity services, also continues to upgrade and expand its services. Its key products are:

  • The Satcom Direct Router SDR and the SDR Gateway, which power a variety of cabin applications that in turn support voice, text and data communications, entertainment, cabin management systems, flight deck awareness, and more. "They are packed with features that maximize bandwidth to keep mid- to large-size aircraft connected at whatever altitude wherever it is in the world," Moore said.
  • Satcom Direct’s small form factor WiFi Hub, which augments these routers in large cabin jets by eliminating buffering and gaps in coverage.
  • A new LTE Hub, which will offer similar capabilities as the SDR, using LTE technology on the ground and a satcom or ATG system, whichever the aircraft uses, in the air. "It is designed to have the smallest form factor in the aviation market to easily and neatly fit into smaller aircraft. It will also be qualified for the rotary market," Moore said.
  • The company also offers several applications to make the passenger connectivity experience the best it can be. SD Pro, the company’s flagship aircraft support application helps support maintenance and scheduling operations, keeping the flight department in synch with the aircraft. SD Cyber Security ensures safety and security of the aircraft network, and the data that is transmitted from it.
  • Supporting these solutions and apps is Satcom Direct’s network operations center, the SD Data Center, and the company’s global support network. For aircraft crew and Aero IT professionals two certified training courses are available to support their understanding of the on-board connectivity and network operations.

Not surprisingly, the growing demand for constant connectivity for a whole range of devices while in flight, is creating huge power demands on aircraft.

“Personal electronic device technology is changing rapidly, and the demand for power is increasing,” said Genovese. “What works today may not be enough for the technology of the future.

“True Blue Power minimizes the impact by offering products that are drop-in replacements for legacy equipment,” continued Genovese. “This makes upgrading equipment easier, faster and less expensive.” He added that True Blue Power continues to invest in new products and technologies to stay abreast of this ever-changing market.

More Capability, Same Cost

Meanwhile, for business aircraft travelers the future looks bright when it comes to connectivity offerings.

While costs aren’t coming down, due to the ongoing investments being made to expand the connectivity infrastructure, customers certainly seem to be getting more services at a similar price, many of the experts say.

“We’ve been serving business aviation for more than a decade, so we have mature global systems, very reliable systems, and people have been able to get on our current network up to 6 mps,” said Pearson. “But on our future network, when they upgrade to our KA band network, they can get up to 16 mps and they don’t pay anything more.”

At Rockwell Collins, Stanly said innovations in flight deck, cabin, airport and communication technologies, along with more powerful and flexible worldwide air and ground networks, continue driving the horizons of aviation connectivity. That’s impacting not only passengers in the cabin, but pilots as well.

Across the board, connectivity suppliers say they continue to invest to keep up with rising demand.

“A couple of years ago, we announced the manufacturing partners for our new service terminals,” said Pemberton. “This year, we’re looking to announce who the new distribution partners and service providers will be. We’re really looking to expand the nucleus of who we work with and stay true to our wholesale model.”

Adds Aguirre at Gogo: “I think you’ll hear a lot more in the coming months and next year about how we leverage the ‘Internet of Things’ in the aircraft.

“As a part of the new architecture we’ve been building, both on the ground and on the aircraft side, we have been very deliberate about making sure that as the Internet of Things comes into aviation, we are positioned to be an enabler of that technology for other partners in the industry that want to enhance their services through connectivity, who up to now have not had that capability,” said Aguirre.

Perhaps Moore at Satcom Direct sums up the benefits of improved connectivity best: “With one system, flight planning, real-time maintenance monitoring and flight performance can be accessed in real time. In the future, we imagine that the aircraft will become increasingly connected, not just for passengers and crew, but also within the cabin.”

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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Business Aviation Insider. Download the magazine app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.
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