Wi-fi in the sky

Business Jet Traveler » October 2010
Aircell's GoGo service has been a homerun success for two simple reasons: the
Friday, October 1, 2010 - 6:00am

One of the big advantages bizav has over airline travel is your ability to get more done by hitting multiple stops in a single day. Now, thanks to in-flight Internet services such as Aircell's GoGo Biz, Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband and ViaSat's Yonder Broadband, you can do more on the way, too.

Aircell rolled out its GoGo highspeed Internet service to the airline market a couple of years ago. The service is now available on more than 1,000 airliners-and passengers say they love it. 

Aircell also has an order backlog for about 1,000 GoGo Biz systems awaiting installation in business aircraft. Aircell's highest-profile customers in bizav are fractional firms NetJets and Flexjet. NetJets recently announced it will install GoGo Biz hardware in 250 business jets as a start and will also add the capability to every new airplane it orders from this point forward. Flexjet said last month it will add GoGo Biz capability to all of its fractional program aircraft. Wi-Fi Internet connections will be provided to NetJets and Flexjet shareowners as a no-cost amenity.

Aircell's GoGo service has been a homerun success for two simple reasons: the connection speeds are fast and the onboard hardware needed to connect is surprisingly affordable. Two black boxes and two small antennas (each is about the size of a Starbucks venti cup) list for $85,000 total. Installation brings the bill to somewhere around $120,000.

What you get for that price are maximum download speeds of about 3.2 megabits per second, rivaling what you're probably used to on the ground. Aircell service plans include Ultraspeed Unlimited, Ultraspeed 100 and Ultraspeed 40. The Unlimited plan costs $1,995 a month with no restriction on data usage. Ultraspeed 100 is $895 per month for 100 megabytes of data transfer, with additional megabytes priced at $7.95 each. Ultraspeed 40 gives passengers 40 megabytes of data each month for $395 (about $13 a day), with additional megabits costing $8.95 each.

For worldwide connectivity after takeoff your best bet is Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband, a satellite-based service that offers slower connections than Aircell's GoGo but is available almost everywhere. SwiftBroadband service providers offer several pricing options that allow customers to pay for the megabytes of bandwidth they use rather than the amount of time the system is turned on. That helps eliminate billing surprises at the end of the month that sometimes occurred with Inmarsat's previous Swift64 service.

Prices for the SwiftBroadband service and hardware are higher than what you'll shell out for GoGo access (SwiftBroadband costs about $8.50 per megabit and the hardware can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars), but the ability to log on worldwide (except over the poles, where there are coverage gaps) makes it a must-have service for international travelers. 

If you want a faster connection you can have it-for a price. Innotech Aviation, a Montreal installation shop, recently added the first ViaSat Ku-band satellite data system, aboard a customer's Bombardier Global Express. ViaSat's worldwide Yonder Ku-band service provides data connections in flight of up to 10 megabits per second, making it the fastest airborne commercial Internet service available. The onboard hardware and tail-mounted antenna cost about $800,000 and the monthly service fee is $6,000 for unlimited use. 

Not to be outdone, Inmarsat has announced plans to introduce a Ka-band satellite broadband service by 2014 that will be far faster, cost less to access and require smaller antennas than competing Ku-band services. Offering a blistering 50 megabit-per-second maximum data rate in flight, Inmarsat's Global Xpress service will link through the Inmarsat I-5 network, which will consist of three Boeing-built satellites, each with 89 fixed spot beams capable of satiating the needs of even the most Web-addicted passengers. 

The big story to emerge from the launch of the I-5 satellite constellation will likely turn out to be Boeing's involvement in the project after the highly publicized demise in 2006 of the Connexion by Boeing Ku-band satellite Internet service. That endeavor failed in the market largely due to economics. The hardware was bulky and expensive, the pricing was too high for most passengers' wallets and the service itself cost more than $1 billion to develop. 

Designers of the Global Xpress service are mindful of past missteps and say their offering will impress with comparatively small antennas and low prices. Given the speed advantage, and the pairing of Inmarsat and Boeing on a serious Ka project, the introduction of Global Xpress could put a crimp in plans of current Ku-band service providers. 

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