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Connected aviation

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By Claudio D’Amico
Business Area Director, Viasat Business Aviation

Viasat’s satellite network enable airborne connectivity with speeds similar to what executives experience on the ground.

For business and private aircraft users, inflight Wi-Fi has moved quickly in the past decade from an expensive, slow, nice-to-have amenity onboard, to a fast and affordable necessity. For air travelers, what constitutes good inflight connectivity (IFC) has changed dramatically.

Where once the ability to send a text from 45,000 ft seemed miraculous, now it’s possible – depending on the network and hardware chosen – to stream video on multiple devices onboard, stay connected with the family and the office from takeoff to touch down, and even engage in videoconferencing.

High-quality connectivity solutions like Viasat are able to simultaneously stream on multiple devices onboard, even over busy hubs when business jet traffic is dense.

Most executives today require an airborne connectivity solution that replicates their office’s online experience. Zoom call from the aircraft? No problem. Connect to VPN? Check. As a result, both data consumption and expectations for IFC are on the rise. Driven in part by more capable devices with faster processing speeds, widespread adoption of higher definition video, and the rapid proliferation of video chat and other streaming services, the trend for skyrocketing internet data and speed requirements in business and private aircraft is likely here to stay.

Connecting smaller business jets

viasatAnd it’s not just about staying connected on the large jets. Demand for high-quality connectivity is also increasing in smaller business and private aircraft operations. Historically, mostly due to limitations on size, weight, power, and cost of equipment or service, satellite-based high-speed connectivity was an option only for large-cabin, long-range aircraft.

Now, with smaller onboard equipment, that same connectivity experience can be offered in super-mid cabin aircraft. At Viasat, we see considerable demand in this super-mid category on aircraft like the Embraer Praetor, Bombardier Challenger 300 series, and Gulfstream G280s. And when high-speed connectivity systems are installed, usage rates are extremely high.

The question for aircraft owners and operators is how to choose a high-quality system that’s both a good match to the aircraft and something that will work well today and be forward-compatible for tomorrow.

Competing to address this rising demand, there are several types of connectivity solutions available, including traditional air-to-ground (ATG) and satellite options in L-band, Ku-band and Ka-band. So, what’s the difference? Certain solutions have steep limitations, such as ATG’s low capacity and inability to work until the aircraft is in the air.

If “location, location, location” is the mantra for real estate, with IFC it’s “capacity, capacity, capacity.” In fact, many connectivity providers just don’t have enough to suit the needs of today’s connected executives or to meet the operational requirements of the aircraft.

Capacity here simply refers to the amount of data that can be delivered over the network at once, and having enough is key to great connectivity speeds and performance. It’s important that decision-makers consider the data usage expectations and ensure the provider has a capacity supply that can meet or exceed the aircraft’s demand wherever it might operate both now and in the future.

Another important consideration is coverage, and it’s not the same story for commercial jets as it is for private. The total number of general aviation airports in the US is about 5000, compared to about 500 commercial airports. This creates an opportunity for pilots of private aircraft to fly to all corners of the US.

While this flexibility is excellent for passengers, it demands a connectivity solution that provides fast, consistent coverage in all of those areas. Satellite connectivity over the higher-frequency Ka-band is where the best service is, and that’s where Viasat is an industry leader.

Airborne connectivity speeds increase as more capable devices enter the market.

Today, the Viasat network covers 90% of the top business aviation flightpaths, over land and sea. And it’s only going to get better with the launch of the next-generation ViaSat-3 constellation, expected to provide near-global coverage. The first of the 3 satellites is planned to go into service in 2023.

ViaSat-3 is comprised of 3 Ka-band geostationary satellites that cover the globe with an anticipated 1 Terabit per second (Tbps) capacity each. That’s on top of our current, estimated 500 Gbps Ka-band network capacity. This huge jump in network capacity and global coverage should help ensure that business aviation customers’ demands will be well served throughout the next decade.

An additional capability that benefits aviation is that these satellites are designed to dynamically shift capacity to where and when it is needed. If one airport is busy in the morning and another sees more traffic later in the day, ViaSat-3 can move the needed capacity and power where and when it is required.

Planning for the future

Viasat’s continual evolution in satellite technology is meant to address the growing demand for higher speeds. With each generation of Viasat satellites, we increase exponentially the amount of capacity per satellite. Our 1st-generation Ka-band satellites had 2–7 Gbps (Gigabits per second) of total throughput capacity.

ViaSat-1 came along in 2011 with 140 Gbps, while our European Ka-band satellite, KA-SAT, has about 90 Gbps. ViaSat-2, which launched in 2017, has over 260 Gbps. And each ViaSat-3 satellite is expected to exceed 1000 Gbps (1 Tbps) of capacity.

It’s not so much about planning for today’s connectivity, but for the demands of the future. This incredible increase in satellite capacity – and in the intelligence of the network to shift that capacity to when and where it is needed – is required to keep up with that never-ending demand for higher speeds and greater data transmission.