Earth- and satellite-based inflight data services providers meet operator needs with services tailored to specific needs.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor
ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B
Pilots and passengers see things differently when it comes to getting from origin to destination. While pilots enjoy talking about the technical aspects of operating the aircraft, passengers care about remaining productive and/or entertained while in the confines of the airframe, with access to the Internet, voice communication, video streaming, social media, and text messaging applications.
Experienced pilots might reflect that, 30 years ago, passengers were lucky to have a low-res 3-inch TV screen built into the back of a headrest. The fact that someone is sitting in a chair in the sky in an environment that won’t support human life, going 500 mph, should garner a more sympathetic response to slow Internet speeds. And yet, it doesn’t.
The name of the game is instant gratification. But the need to have it all right now shouldn’t be a surprise. In the 1960s, Stanford University Psychologist and Professor Walter Mischel conducted the marshmallow test, in which a child was placed alone in a room with a single marshmallow on a table.
The child could eat the single marshmallow immediately or forgo the marshmallow until the proctor returned. If the child opted to wait, he would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Most kids eventually gave in and ate the first marshmallow. Unbeknown to the child, the wait time was 15 minutes.
Smartphones and connectivity
Recent experiments have shown that humans start to exhibit anxiety, frustration, and anger after 8 minutes of waiting. Those 8 minutes could be spent waiting in line at the grocery store, on hold with customer service, or downloading a movie. The context doesn’t matter; the feeling of disconnectedness does.
The proliferation of smartphones and portable electronic devices (PEDs) has further enhanced the effect. According to a study conducted by Ofcom in 2018, 64% of respondents said the Internet is an essential part of their life, and 72% said their cellphone is the most important device for accessing it.
More telling is that 78% said they couldn’t live without their phone, and 71% never turn it off. The tone associated with receiving a text message elicits a Pavlovian response. Today, being connected is the norm. Even the Mount Everest base camp (altitude 5320 m) boasts a solar-powered Wi-Fi network.
Flying on an airplane can leave a person without connectivity for an extended period, and that can be problematic – whether perceived or otherwise. Spirit Airlines managed to avoid installing Internet access for most of its history, and post-flight passenger behavior was predictable – 200 people would try to access the Internet as soon as they could get off the plane. To a psychologist, it’s like watching patients in line at a methadone clinic come to life when the open sign turns on.
The perceived need for constant connectivity can be so addictive that at one point it elicited serious discussion of being included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Even Spirit Airlines eventually realized that lack of connectivity was affecting the bottom line, and in July 2022 finished installing Wi-Fi on its fleet of Airbus A320s and A321s. Society has come to expect (ie, demand) connectivity. Lack thereof is a disadvantage.
Although Wi-Fi has come to mean Internet access, the 2 terms don’t mean the same thing. Wi-Fi is a means of connectivity based on an IEEE 802.11 standard. An Internet service provider (ISP) provides a signal via wire, radio, or satellite.
The user receives the signal with a modem, and the modem connects to a router which splits the signal across multiple devices. Routers can be connected to a wireless access point (WAP) via an Ethernet cable, or be designed with a WAP embedded. The WAP delivers the “Wi-Fi” portion of the system and allows wireless-capable devices to connect to the Internet without using wires or cables.
Connectivity for business jets
Most business jets have some form of connectivity installed. However, flight departments have 2 barriers when it comes to connectivity – cost of installation and cost of service.
Terrestrial-based Internet is cost effective because it uses wire (eg, coax, fiber optic) as a means of delivery. Bandwidth – or capacity – is a function of the method of delivery, which is one reason satellite-based Internet is priced higher than comparable Earth-based services. The best value is obtained by assessing the needs of the flight department and purchasing appropriately.
The most important metric for comparing options is speed, which is measured in kilobits or megabits per second (Kbps or Mbps, respectively). 1024 Kbps is equivalent to 1 Mbps. According to highspeedinternet.com – a resource for comparing Internet providers – FCC considers anything over 25 Mbps to be broadband or high-speed.
The average household Internet speed in the US is 42.86 Mbps. Download speed is how fast the Internet is received, while upload speed corresponds to how fast data is sent out. An often overlooked feature is latency, or lag time between request and receipt of signal. Higher latency rates (and thus signal distortion, especially on video calls) are commonly seen with satellite-based Internet, because of the distance the signal has to travel.
Speed recommendations are based on the type of usage. Lower-capacity users are those who only send and receive text messages, e-mails, and files. At 10 Mbps download speed, a high-resolution image would take approximately 4 seconds to come through.
At the same bandwidth, a 300-MB video file would need 4 min 24 sec. ISPs suggest that users who open multiple websites at the same time or browse the Web extensively get a minimum of 5 Mbps. Streaming music alone is at the lower end of the bandwidth spectrum, at 1 Mbps. Video services like Netflix and Hulu require higher speeds. Netflix and videoconferencing can range between 1 and 25 Mbps based on user resolution settings.
More is always better, but it comes at a price. More than one flight department accountant has been shocked by the monthly Internet bill, especially when paying by Mbps on a transatlantic crossing. One cost-effective option for an entry-level flight department that only needs basic connectivity is Airtext. The flagship product costs $9950 (exclusive of installation), with a data plan fee of $400 per year.
The subscription data plan starts with 2500 text messages that are sent and received via the Iridium satellite network. Additional messages can be purchased on an as-needed basis.
An Airtext Plus upgrade permits Bluetooth voice calling at $1.25 per minute. The Airtext product is popular with owners/operators of high-performance twin piston, turboprops, and light jet aircraft.
A portable version of Airtext, which supports 6 simultaneous users sending texts or e-mails, doesn’t require permanent installation, so it can be moved from aircraft to aircraft.
One day it can be in the Citation flying the CEO, and the following week it can be in the chief pilot’s Beech Bonanza headed to a pancake breakfast.
Another option for basic Web browsing, e-mails, text messages, and phone calls is Honeywell’s BendixKing Aerowave. This operates off the Inmarsat network, which can deliver at least 200 Kbps of data anywhere in the world. The number is higher in US airspace. Honeywell advertises that equipment and installation can be accomplished at a price below $35,000.
Honeywell’s Bendix-King AeroWave uses a low profile antenna that makes the system well suited for turboprops and light jets.
Service fees are based on usage, and Honeywell has cleverly defined its customers as either “leisure users” or “power users.” Leisure users do better with the advertised flat monthly fee of $399, while power users pay by the hour ($39.99). Power users can also get a deal by purchasing the hourly rate in 50-hour blocks. Aerowave can provide significant benefits to charter operators, and is a popular means of enabling connectivity for PC-12 and King Air operators.
High-speed connectivity providers
Gogo has been delivering airborne connectivity for a long time, and recently announced completion of its 5G network. One of Gogo’s best-known business aviation products – a combination of Internet, voice, entertainment, cockpit apps, and remote support – is the AVANCE L5, which incorporates a smart dual-band router designed to maximize bandwidth and Wi-Fi signal propagation. Passengers can use their own smartphones to talk and text in the air and on the ground.
Gogo’s business aviation website takes the concierge approach and walks potential customers through a series of questions about wants and needs. As an example, selecting the Gulfstream G650 opens up a menu asking what you want to do with your inflight Wi-Fi.
The box that reads, “The fastest, highest capacity digital experience” offers all the entertainment and productivity at speeds averaging 25 Mbps (peak up to 80 Mbps) for 11 or more people on an average flight duration of 3-plus hours on an international corporate trip. Gogo’s SwiftBroadband, which operates off the Inmarsat network, makes all of this possible.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, selecting a HondaJet operating in Part 135 carrying 1–3 passengers on domestic flights of less than 1 hour, the system recommends the Gogo AVANCE SCS, which provides a single interface that passengers can use to engage with a fully connected cabin, and that offers movies and TV episodes.
Gogo got its start as a terrestrial radio-wave-based system, but now offers a combination of ground-based and
satellite coverage to optimize your mission.
Smartsky is one of the newest entrants in the marketplace. It offers high-speed terrestrial-based coverage with its proprietary beam-forming technology. This means that each aircraft is assigned a secure connection to the network rather than sharing bandwidth with other users, resulting in reduced latency and increased bandwidth.
Smartsky employs a monthly subscription model based on usage. The entry level is called the BA5 and the pre-discount rate is advertised at $3495 per month for 5 GB of total data. All subscription models employ overage fees, and the way to avoid limiting data or constantly being concerned about usage is with an unlimited plan, offered by Smartsky at $9995.
Smartsky uses proprietary antennas to take advantage of beam-forming technology.
Flight departments that conduct extensive international operations need to incorporate satellite-based systems into their connectivity plan to maintain continuity of signal throughout the trip. Satellite systems tend to be installed on larger aircraft because of the size of the antenna required to maintain coverage. Each radio band within a satellite network has unique characteristics.
L-band uses a smaller antenna and requires less pointing accuracy, but has bandwidth limitations, so costs can be higher. An advantage of L-band is that it penetrates rain and fog easily. Both Inmarsat and Iridium provide L-band coverage. C-band is less resistant to rain fade and requires a larger antenna than L-band. However, the lower frequency spectrum means it operates at a lower cost per megabit.
Ku-band has a smaller antenna requirement and higher throughput than C-band, is resistant to terrestrial interference, and costs less than L-band to deliver. Ka-band is the highest throughput available and operates based on a “spot beam” coverage methodology. One shortcoming of Ka is that rain, moisture, and humidity can interfere with the signal.
Satellite coverage providers
The 2 most well-known satellite coverage providers for business aviation are Satcom Direct and Viasat.
Satcom Direct (SD) partners with a multitude of satellite service providers and can take advantage of L, Ku, Ka, and X-band (currently denoted for government and military use only) satellite signals, and can also connect to 3G/4G/LTE terrestrial networks.
The heart of the system is a technologically advanced router dubbed the SDR, which connects the cabin with the satellite network through the antennas.
The dual-band SDR supports multiple Wi-Fi networks within the cabin, so passengers can be allocated customized bandwidth (specified as a guest or VIP network). In 2020, SD announced its Plane Simple antenna series. The SD Plane Simple Ku-band antenna enters commercial service this month, and the Ka-band version has begun flight testing.
Viasat owns and operates its own constellation of Ka-band satellites delivering coverage on 90% of business aviation flight routes. Service plans include Ka with “no speed limits,” which translates to speeds in the range of 30 Mbps. A Ku-band option provides up to 10 Mbps and near-global coverage.
For those who can afford it, the premier option is the dual coverage package – a system that shifts seamlessly between Ka and Ku, depending on which one offers the best solution based on aircraft location. Which system is in use is unbeknown to the passengers, so the service remains uninterrupted. Given the myriad options available at various price points, flight departments can provide at least some level of connectivity to their passengers.
Having connectivity while airborne is the expected norm. Just like an annual inspection, it’s a necessary expense. A comprehensive needs assessment before committing to an installation or switching providers can identify the best course of action at the best price.