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Cabin Tech '09
Now that the business jet cabin can be turned into a flying Wi-Fi hotspot, our days of being sealed off from the rest of the world after takeoff really are numbered.
Aircell, the company behind the GoGo Internet service available on a growing number of airline flights, is expanding into the business jet field in a big way with hardware that is lightweight and relatively inexpensive and speeds fast enough to satiate any Internet junkie. The really big news? Installations for business jet customers will start in July, some three months ahead of schedule, according to the Itasca, Ill. company.
Three years ago, Aircell paid $31 million to the federal government for a swath of air-to-ground frequency spectrum that was originally used for those seat-back phones most airline passengers ignored. The company has since built 92 cell sites across the U.S. that provide uninterrupted broadband coverage above 10,000 feet.
The best thing about the Aircell service is the speed. Data rates through the ground-to-air network can reach 3.1 megabits per second to the airplane and 1.8 megabits per second in the reverse direction. That means Web pages load as quickly as they do in your office, online videos start immediately and play without interruption and e-mail attachments appear almost instantly. All you have to do is settle into your seat, open your laptop and start surfing.
The onboard hardware needed to connect to the service consists of an Aircell Axxess unit with built-in Wi-Fi and Iridium satcom voice-calling capability, an ATG 4000 data unit and two seven-inch blade antennas installed on the belly. The package costs about $85,000, plus the price of installation. That's a bargain compared with most satellite communications alternatives (which we'll cover in a bit), and it gives you two channels of low-cost Iridium satellite voice service that you can use to make phone calls anywhere in the world. What's more, the hardware can be installed in virtually any size airplane, even down to single-engine turboprops.
Aircell's GoGo Internet service has been installed on around 185 airliners so far and appears to be popular with passengers. Airlines now installing GoGo gear include American, Delta, United, Air Canada and Virgin America. Passengers pay $12.95 for Internet access on flights longer than three hours and $9.95 on shorter legs. On some flights, access using a handheld device such as a BlackBerry or iPhone is offered for $7.95 per segment. Thousands have logged on to the service, including many frequent fliers who use GoGo nearly every time they board, Aircell reports.
The company has rolled out two pricing plans for business aviation users. The first opens the full fire hose of airborne data for a flat monthly fee of $1,995. The second plan, enabling "light" Internet use and e-mail access using Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerrys or iPhones, costs $895 a month. Both services are available anywhere over the continental U.S. and could soon be expanded to parts of Canada and Mexico, Aircell says.
The big drawback of the Aircell service is the limited coverage area. If you need Internet access while flying outside the U.S., satellite options include Inmarsat's L-band SwiftBroadband service and Ku-band offerings like ViaSat's Yonder Broadband and Gulfstream's Broad Band Multi Link. SwiftBroadband is a near-global service (coverage gaps exist at the poles and over part of the North Atlantic near Greenland), but connection speeds are noticeably slower than with the Aircell service. The Ku-band satellite services offer much faster speeds (up to 10 mbps), but coverage for now is limited to a few geographical regions. And no matter what satellite option you're considering, the hardware prices can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the onboard satcom terminals, high-power amplifiers and sophisticated electronically or mechanically steered antennas.
Although the access speeds leave something to be desired, SwiftBroadband is adequate for e-mail and basic Web surfing if you don't mind waiting for pages to load. EMS Satcom, a leading name in the aeronautical satellite communications market, sells the CNX network accelerator. It's a box installed in the back of the airplane that's designed to boost speeds, with downloads of 1.6 mbps said to be possible. Several satcom equipment manufacturers sell gear that will let you connect using a Wi-Fi BlackBerry or iPhone.
It's important to note that while Inmarsat allows you to install multiple SwiftBroadband receivers on your airplane, these channels cannot be bonded to boost your speed. Also, to avoid slowing down its network, Inmarsat currently limits SwiftBroadband use to two channels per aircraft. After 2012, customers will be allowed to install four SwiftBroadband channels, two for the cabin and two for the cockpit, Inmarsat says.
You may have heard about-or experienced-congestion issues with Inmarsat's earlier Swift64 data service, particularly along the East Coast of the U.S. at peak times, but so far SwiftBroadband users don't appear to be affected by such slowdowns. Still, you owe it to yourself to connect through a trusted service reseller. Melbourne, Fla.-based Satcom Direct, for instance, has troubleshooters who constantly monitor the Inmarsat network and in some cases will let your flight department know of trouble spots before you're even aware there's a problem.
Commercial SwiftBroadband service has been available since October 2007, but it was only recently that a third Inmarsat I-4 satellite completed the global constellation, filling a large coverage gap over the Pacific Ocean. Although SwiftBroadband is a higher-performing service than Swift64 (which sends data at up to 64 kilobits per second per channel), it actually costs less to access. That's because SwiftBroadband is an "always-on" service that charges users for the data they transmit rather than the time they spend online. Testing has shown it will cost about $8 to send a one-megabyte file using SwiftBroadband versus nearly $16 for two minutes of connection time using Swift64 to send the same file.
Besides EMS Satcom and Thrane & Thrane, companies that sell SwiftBroadband-compatible hardware include TrueNorth Avionics, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Cobham. Systems specifically designed for smaller business airplanes are just around the corner. Ottawa-based TrueNorth recently unveiled a product called Simphone Global Broadband through a collaboration with Cobham that's being touted as a sub-$100,000 SwiftBroadband-compatible system weighing in at about 20 pounds. Thrane & Thrane is following suit with its Aero SB Lite product and EMS Satcom has introduced eNfusion System 7, both of which are also tailored to smaller aircraft. All three products hit the market this year.
For satellite Interent access that's as fast as you'd expect to enjoy on the ground, Carlsbad, Calif.-based ViaSat offers a compelling alternative to Aircell and Inmarsat. The company reached a 10-year agreement last summer with KVH Industries to establish the global Ku-band, mobile-broadband network for aircraft and ships using ViaSat's ArcLight high-efficiency technology. Under the agreement, KVH sells into the maritime market and ViaSat sells into the aviation market. The firms are establishing ArcLight spread-spectrum, mobile-broadband networks incrementally in expanding geographic regions with an eventual goal of near-global coverage.
Using a lightweight, 12-inch antenna, Yonder is capable of providing download speeds in flight of up to 10 megabits per second. The service is available over North America, the Caribbean, the North Atlantic, Europe, the North Pacific and the Arabian Gulf. It will be expanded to much of the rest of the world by early next year, the company says.
ViaSat also provides the satellite link to Gulfstream operators flying with Broad Band Multi Link equipment, capable of providing download speeds of 3.5 mbps. The ViaSat BBML gear is currently in about 80 Gulfstreams. ViaSat also provides the satellite link for Rockwell Collins's eXchange air-to-ground broadband service and was the company behind the failed Connexion by Boeing venture.
That latter service provided high-speed data in flight and was well received by the airline passengers who briefly got the chance to use it, but the high costs associated with leasing Ku-band satellite spectrum doomed the venture after around $1.5 billion was spent to try to make it economically viable. Now that Ku-band satellite pricing models have been adjusted, ViaSat has high hopes that Yonder can take off.