Matt Thurber AIN ONLINE
Airborne Connectivity for Smaller Business Aircraft
May 5, 2017
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  • For the owner or operator of a smaller business aircraft—anything from a sophisticated piston single to turboprops and light jets—airborne connectivity has been aviation’s “unobtainium,” a fiercely desired but unavailable product. On the ground we have become so used to being online all the time at relatively high connectivity speeds that in the air we feel that something is missing. And it is increasingly difficult to get work done without some sort of connection to the Internet.

    AIN created the following table to summarize the types of airborne connectivity systems that are available or (in the case of SmartSky) will be available soon. At the low end are small Iridium satellite communications (satcom) systems, which have the advantage of providing service anywhere in the world, thanks to the Iridium network’s low-Earth-orbit placement and the number of satellites in the constellation. Iridium is going to see a big boost in speed when its Next constellation is deployed, and these satellites are already being launched to prepare for service early next year. Some Iridium systems may be upgradeable to the Next configuration, and some will require replacement.

    By contrast, Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service, long the go-to satcom system for reasonable connectivity services in the air, offers mostly worldwide coverage with the exception of polar regions, which isn’t typically a problem for smaller business aircraft.

    U.S.-based aircraft owners and operators have the advantage of more choices for airborne connectivity: air-to-ground services by Gogo Business Aviation and, to begin service later this year, SmartSky. The one disadvantage of air-to-ground services is that coverage does not begin until 10,000 feet. This is a result of their network designs, which rely on antenna systems co-located on cellphone towers but pointing to the sky. If these systems worked down to the ground, they could interfere with terrestrial cellphone signals. Air-to-ground services are limited to the Continental U.S. (and portions of Canada and Alaska for Gogo Business Aviation).

    SmartSky promises to launch what it calls “4G LTE” service. It has not specified a service speed but has said it will allow video streaming. Gogo Business Aviation’s 3.1 Mbps is sufficient for most business uses but doesn’t permit large email attachments or video streaming from the ground (the Gogo Vision inflight entertainment system does offer streaming). Gogo has also deployed its new three-times-faster 4G service, likely more attractive for larger aircraft for now. Gogo says it is also developing a faster air-to-ground service.

    One caveat: like terrestrial Internet service providers, system speeds are “up to” numbers. The actual service speed could be lower, especially if there are many other users on the same network or using the same Inmarsat spot beam at the same time.

    For smaller aircraft, the limiting factor is antenna size. SmartSky will require two antennas, which could be challenging for aircraft without much extra room on the fuselage belly, although King Air-size airplanes should be able to handle such an installation. Iridium antennas are usually not an issue. But when it comes to SwiftBroadband and other more capable satcom systems from companies such as ViaSat, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and so on, much larger antennas are required for true high-speed service.

    If you are looking for airborne connectivity, there are many factors to consider; this chart is just a beginning and may not include all possible solutions. The best place to start your search is not necessarily your local avionics shop but a satcom service provider such as Satcom Direct, Satcom1 (now owned by Honeywell) or AirSatOne. With Iridium satcoms, you’ll need to at least buy a sim card for voice calling, and these companies can help with that. For SwiftBroadband, a service provider is needed to help set up and deliver airtime services, similar to signing up with a cellphone service provider. Honeywell/BendixKing sells the AeroWave 104-Kbps service directly to customers, but the higher-speed 200 Kbps must be purchased from a service provider.

    All of the service providers can help you understand the confusing landscape of airborne connectivity and choose the best system and service for your aircraft.