Getting Connected

Buyers' Guide » 2009
Saturday, August 1, 2009 - 5:00am

If you crave having worldwide access to e-mail after takeoff, there's really only one choice: Inmarsat's mobile satellite communications services. Well, actually, there are two choices, both from Inmarsat: Swift64 and SwiftBroadband. Swift64 provides download data transmission speeds of 64 kilobits per second (kbps) per channel maximum. That's only slightly faster than an old telephone modem connection, but it's better than having nothing. SwiftBroadband can transfer data about six times faster-at up to 432 kbps-but even that's a bit slow for everyday Web surfing.

But for e-mail on your laptop or even a BlackBerry or iPhone, the Inmarsat services are perfect, experts say.

The 432-kbps data rate of SwiftBroadband isn't the major reason the service seems too slow for full-fledged Internet access. Rather, it's the request-reply nature of the Web and the fact that Inmarsat's satellites orbit about 24,000 miles above the planet that causes a logjam of zeros and ones going back and forth between land-earth stations and the satellites and then back down to your airplane.

Swift64 and SwiftBroadband use separate satellite networks, so their footprints are slightly different, but both services are available pretty much anywhere in the world except at the poles. Many users of Swift64 have bonded multiple channels to boost their speeds, but at a high cost: Swift64 runs $8 per minute per channel for access. Bond multiple channels and the bills can add up in a hurry. Case in point? A senior vice president for a Fortune 1000 company once flew from Singapore to New York with both Swift64 connections open the whole time-unbeknownst to him since he used the service for about the first 20 minutes of the flight and then went to sleep. The error was discovered only when the company got a bill for $16,000 worth of Internet access for that single trip.

SwiftBroadband charges by the amount of data transmitted rather than time in use, so despite being a faster service it's actually less expensive to use. Downloading a one megabyte file with SwiftBroadband costs about $8 versus $16 for two minutes of Swift64 connection time. But SwiftBroadband also means upgrading your onboard satcom equipment and antenna. If you're already using Swift64, it may be hard to justify the move, particularly since SwiftBroadband doesn't yet support oceanic safety communication services between pilots and ATC-a nice benefit of Swift64 and other Inmarsat satcom systems. But that capability is coming soon to SwiftBroadband, Inmarsat says.

The hot trend among users of either service is e-mail access with a BlackBerry or iPhone. Some extra hardware is required to get this capability to work (like an onboard Wi-Fi connection), but once passengers try it, they love it. "My boss doesn't want to surf the Web anyway," said the chief of maintenance for a corporate operator with a fleet of Gulfstreams. "Those guys just want to send that five-line e-mail back and forth with people on the ground for the whole flight. If you're just doing that, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband work great."

Honeywell was one of the first companies to offer BlackBerry connections for its satcom gear, but most of the major satcom equipment manufacturers have followed suit. Still, this stuff really is rocket science, with the added complexity of TCP/IP protocols and all within the confines of an object moving through the sky at 500 miles per hour. Sometimes just getting your BlackBerry to work in flight can seem like a miracle. Experts offer these tips for making sure your Swift64 or SwiftBroadband installation goes smoothly:

• Talk directly with the equipment manufacturers about how you want to use the service, the types of computers and PDAs you'll have onboard and corporate security features you may have installed on you own network.

• Make sure the installation center where you'll have the equipment installed has experience with satcom installations and troubleshooting.

• Get your own IT department involved in the process from the outset. Many times a good IT professional within your organization can communicate things about your network that can head off problems before they start.

• Have your IT personnel receive specific training in Swift64 and SwiftBroadband or partner with a trusted satcom service provider that knows all the tips and tricks to making things work.

Armed with a plan, the right people by your side and a little patience, you too can be sending e-mails from the comfort of your seat at 35,000 feet.

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“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”