Dec. 12, 2016
The onboard connectivity market remains one of the hottest and fastest growing segments of business aviation and for good reason. Business aviation travelers and crews these days insist on being connected to the internet or cell systems to do everything from monitoring their email and surfing the web, to being able to “text and talk” using smartphones and other devices while en route.
Gone are the days when these services were considered perks. Travelers demand continuous connectivity while en route from takeoff to landing, for both domestic and international travel. And they expect connection speeds to be as fast as those they have at home or in their offices, which puts pressure on owners and operators to make sure their onboard connectivity systems are capable of meeting those demands.
Once, passengers might have accepted some compromise in onboard Wi-Fi offerings available on business jets, but that is rapidly changing. That is due, in part, to the connectivity gains made by commercial airlines, which increasingly are offering more and faster services. Business aircraft clients and crew now expect owners and operators to not only offer internet access, but also ensure that the quality of the service is at least equal to that offered by many commercial carriers.
“What we’re hearing is that it comes down to expectations,” said Eli Cotti, NBAA director of technical operations. “You fly in a commercial flight and then jump into a company jet, and all of a sudden, systems are slower.”
Compounding the confusion, Cotti added, is that the business jet typically has only a few people on board accessing the Wi-Fi system, while the commercial aircraft might have 100 people or more using it simultaneously. “In the private plane, you’d think the experience would be better,” said Cotti.
Much of this user confusion can be blamed on several factors, including a lack of understanding regarding the complexities around providing connectivity aboard an aircraft, which is often flying at 40,000 feet or more at speeds in excess of 500 miles per hour, all the while communicating with a host of ground- and satellite-based systems that help ensure passengers, pilots and crew are connected to the internet and datalink services during the entire flight.
In addition, some experts say many connectivity products and services suppliers have done a poor job helping guide travelers and business aircraft operators through the maze of connectivity options available.
“There are too many choices, and it’s confusing, which is one of the things that stalls people from [offering onboard internet access],” said Steve Newell, chief commercial officer of True North Avionics, Inc., a leading provider of airborne connectivity for long-range wide and narrow-body business jets. “It is complicated, and I don’t know why we as an industry have made it so. At True North, we’re trying to simplify it.”
Despite the complexities and the costs, more and more business aircraft are offering internet connectivity and Wi-Fi access to customers. And, that trend is only expected to accelerate. “I predict that in 15 years, 98 percent of all things flying will have some sort of connectivity,” said Mark van Berkel, CEO of True North.
The push to “get connected” can be seen at many of the nation’s maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities (MRO) catering to business aircraft. For example, at Duncan Aviation, the world’s largest privately owned business jet support facility with MRO facilities in Battle Creek, MI; Lincoln, NE; and Provo, UT, the company as of late September had installed more than 800 onboard Wi-Fi systems.
“That’s just amazing to me,” said Gary Harpster, senior modification sales – avionics at Duncan Aviation. “And that’s just our shop. So you think about all the other shops who are putting them in, and it’s clear that a tremendous number of people have Wi-Fi systems in the airplane.”
Increasingly, these systems are offering not just internet access but the ability for clients on board to text and talk on their smartphones. They also want to be able to stream music and video and conduct video conferences while on board. And, naturally, they want to be able stream movies and watch television programming, including sporting events – live while they’re happening.
All this is pushing ground-based and satellite service providers to offer even more bandwidth to accommodate these needs.
“Twenty-five years ago, at the time AirCell launched, connectivity was viewed as a tool to work; a productivity thing,” said Sergio Aguirre, general manager of Gogo Business Aviation and senior vice president. “Today… people no longer look at connectivity necessarily with work. They associate it with their entire lifestyle, whether it’s relax, play or work.”
So how does the business jet owner/operator keep up with these demands and changing trends; especially given the cost and technical issues that must be considered?
The answer starts with reviewing how your aircraft is being used. Is it flying primarily for domestic travel, or for international trips – or both?
From there, it’s a matter of budget and what you can cost-effectively afford to provide. Then it boils down to selecting the right equipment.
“You need to have some sort of infrastructure installed, and of course hardware has to be selected with your mission in mind,” said Berkel at True North. “There are physical things that have to be done – a Wi-Fi access point, switches, telephone handset. You need the basic infrastructure stuff just like if you’re putting the internet in your office.”
It helps to understand the basic components needed to set up an in-flight Wi-Fi system. Of course, this is a business aircraft, so weight and space factors for components and antennae inside and outside the aircraft must be considered. You’ll also want a system offering low power drain and high reliability.
So what does all this cost?
A basic ground-based system, according to Harpster, can be installed for between $100,000-$160,000. But, he adds, that the cost can be higher depending on how much of the aircraft’s interior has to be removed to accommodate the installation.
“Some airplanes, you have to take out a lot of interior to gain access to the belly panels to install antennas,” he said. “If you want Iridium [satellite communication capability] too, then you have handsets and drink rails to modify.”
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
Domestic connectivity is fairly simple given that most connections are air-to-ground. International travel places greater demands on equipment, since the connection is satellite based. And, of course, these connections are more expensive.
Installation costs have come down in recent years as has the size of equipment, such as antennae.
“If you go back before the air-to-ground Gogo Biz network, if you wanted connectivity on an aircraft you had to spend between $300,000-$500,000,” said Aguirre. “And, you had to have very large equipment, and the antennae was at a size where it would only fit on the very large, heavy airframes.”
Today, Gogo offers equipment for air-to-ground systems that are so small size that the company can install connectivity systems on turboprops. “So not only is the equipment smaller and the antennae smaller…but also the cost to the flight department and the passengers is a fraction of what satellite-based systems are,” Aguirre said.
With the explosive growth of the personal electronic device market, covering everything from computer laptops to tablets and smartphones, the demand for faster services is pushing providers to offer more bandwidth. And that remains the biggest connectivity hurdle to overcome, according to the experts. “In an airplane, if you can get 2 to 3 mps [megabits per second] you’re doing pretty well,” said Harpster.
Added Newell at True North: “The latest satellites that are already launched over KU and KA band will allow you to surf the internet at somewhere around 10-15 mps in the best of conditions.”
While this represents a vast improvement over the 120-kps rates that were common onboard a decade ago, they’re still not fast enough to allow passengers to stream most video, especially movies. Keep in mind that transfer rates of 100-150 mps in home-based broadband systems are not uncommon.
“There are two factors that are significant as it relates to aviation and streaming,” said Aguirre at Gogo. “One is ‘Can it be done?’ and the other is ‘Is it commercially viable to do it?’”
The answer – Yes, it can be done, but given the costs, most operators might find it too expensive to offer.
Van Berkel puts it into perspective talking about a customer who about a decade ago decided to stream a live broadcast of the Super Bowl onboard. “But then they realized it was probably cheaper to go to the Super Bowl and to have watched the box feed right at field level and get sprayed with champagne when [their team] won,” he said. “It’s doable, but it’s just not cost-effective.”
Another factor limiting transmission rates is antenna size, which is a big issue especially aboard smaller aircraft. Not surprisingly, this where many future connectivity advancements are expected to be made.
“We hear from manufacturers that the next leap will have to be in the antennae,” said NBAA’s Cotti. “So a lot of fingers are crossed and hopes are high for technology to be implemented that will generate higher performance from the same size antennae.”
Business Jet Optimization
Meanwhile, service providers are stepping up to the plate by offering faster, more seamless services that are designed specifically for the business jet user.
For example, Gogo early next year will launch its Gogo Biz 4G service, which is a specially designed application of Gogo’s latest air-to-ground technology. It leverages Gogo’s existing air-to-ground network and technology, which underwent hundreds of thousands of hours of testing aboard thousands of business and commercial aircraft. The Gogo Biz 4G equipment package will incorporate dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi service and a host of other features – all from a single, lightweight box.
And True North this summer announced the introduction of Connected.aero, the company’s new airborne connectivity service. The company touts Connected.aero as aviation’s first hybrid cloud solution designed to amplify bandwidth and enhance the inflight connectivity experience to be more like on the ground.
Meanwhile, Rockwell Collins has introduced the Jet ConneX (JX) service as part of its ARINCDirectSM offering. It provides some of the fastest broadband connectivity speeds available with usage plans that are similar to what one typically sees with their home cable provider. Rockwell also says it’s the first high-speed Ka-band network supporting global service with consistent high quality and speeds.
In all cases, the systems are seamless. En route the system will select the best pipeline to receive a signal. Overland that might be an air-to-ground connection, while offshore, the system is selecting the most available and strongest satellite signal.
To help contain costs, the Gogo first generation air-to-ground network doesn’t allow video streaming due to the limited bandwidth available.
“It’s been a point of contention with our customers, which is why we launched the 4G ATG product,” said Aguirre. “With this product, we will no longer block streaming.”
To accommodate passenger desires to stream, say, a movie, and to help flight departments contain costs, the Gogo system lets passengers choose from content that actually is uploaded and stored on the aircraft.
Likewise, through True North’s Optelity Pro product, the Connected.aero service uses a variety of techniques to reduce bandwidth-hogging data sessions, such as background updates, block interruptive content, dropped connections and more. In addition, it will increase bandwidth using channel bonding, compression and acceleration, which reduces transmissions at the source.
Meanwhile, the JX Rockwell Collins’ airborne data router creates one network with the ability to prioritize traffic to effectively manage an entire suite of connectivity options through one device.
Power connections inside the aircraft also are an important consideration. These days passengers are coming to expect to have USB power connections at their seat, so that smartphones, tablets and other devices are fully charged when they land. True Blue Power, a division of Mid-Continent Instrument Co., Inc., offers a line of aircraft inverters and power supplies, as well as small USB chargers that fit in the passenger seat armrest, seat back or seat frame. The company also makes an inverter that converts the 28 volts of power from the aircraft into 115 VAC. Its inverters range from 250-1,200 W.
“We’re seeing an option for both the wall outlets and also the USB ports to charge all types of devices,” said Tom Genovese, True Blue Power account manager. Genovese said the product was an instant hit with commercial airlines, but over the last few years has proven equally popular with business aircraft users.
“We’re one of the only suppliers who got the FAA TSO approval,” he said. “That TSO approval has helped a lot of installers have an easier path to have it installed and certified either into the seat or cabin of the aircraft.” Compared to other connectivity equipment, the USB ports are fairly affordable at $400.
“It contains two ports that provide about 3 amps of power,” Genovese said. “Installation is pretty straightforward with just power and ground going to the unit. So a shop installing three ports through the cabin might charge about $1,000-$1,500 for the installation, including hardware.”
Another issue owner/operators face is keeping up with a market where the technology is rapidly changing. A host of new low-orbit satellites are being launched, which experts say will improve connection speeds and increase the quality of transmissions. And service suppliers increasingly are offering service upgrades that can be added to existing services without requiring whole reinstallations of new equipment.
For example, Gogo in September announced its second generation air-to-ground network that utilizes LTE, or long-term evolution, technology. It will offer line-ofsight connection speeds of up to 100 mps, Aguirre said, and will be offered as an upgrade to its first-generation system.
“This is not a standalone replacement network,” he said. “It will be utilized in conjunction with our current licensed spectrum.”
Likewise, True North in September introduced its latest cabin communications system, Simphone Pro with a special upgrade program for legacy Simphone product owners. The new product delivers all the capabilities of the older systems with added performance and value.
Building on TrueNorth’s Optelity Cabin Gateway, Simphone Pro offers advanced processing power and updated Wi-Fi capabilities, which increase performance and enable the latest technologies. In addition, system purchasers have the option to buy an Optelity Care membership. This membership-based customer support program offers “no questions asked” returns, and covers all software and hardware upgrades. Simphone Pro owners also receive complimentary access to Connected.aero.
Passenger Usage Habits
Finally, another issue operators and owners face is managing passenger usage, especially as they insist on having more internet access. This is especially important on international flights where the pipeline is satellite based and can be very expensive, especially when streaming content. So operators should encourage passengers to perform more expensive tasks on the ground or over ATG networks, when usage is cheaper.
“When you’re in the airplane, that’s the most expensive connection, so why do it then?” said Cotti. “So a lot of it is managing your devices.”
On international flights, Harpster said it’s important to understand when customers will be demanding the most access.
“Generally, when people are going to Europe, they leave in the evening,” he said. “The passengers are asleep 30 minutes offshore, so they sleep all the way over. When they come back, they leave in the morning and fly during the day. That’s when they can take advantage of the internet capability. But you’re really spending the money for only half the journey; the return trip. It’s something to consider.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Business Aviation Insider.