Connectivity buyer’s guide

Full connectivity on business jets has become essential, but it comes with many decisions. Here’s what to consider when choosing a connectivity solution. Words: Yuvan Kumar

Connectivity buyer’s guide

Full connectivity on business jets has become essential, but it comes with many decisions. Here’s what to consider when choosing a connectivity solution. Words: Yuvan Kumar

AIRCRAFT CONNECTIVITY systems went from nice-to-have to absolutely 100% essential-to-fly, for individuals and operators, in a matter of a decade. One of the first questions that buyers now ask is about connectivity.

Just ask the OEMs that are responsible for altering fuselage design to accommodate hardware antennas. And the brokers, who will often get a connectivity system fitted before reselling an aircraft.

Ray Villar, director, Market Development, Inmarsat Aviation says that few jet buyers want to understand the underlying technology of their connectivity system. They just want something that is reliable and keeps them connected across all their trips.

For those who are interested, the market is full of options from providers who have had years of expertise in connecting aircraft.

The ecosystem is divided among companies which put satellites up in space – Viasat, Intelsat, Inmarsat and Iridium – and those which provide necessary onboard equipment and air-to-ground connectivity – Gogo, Satcom Direct, ARINCDirect, Viasat, Honeywell and SmartSky Networks.

Similar to Wi-Fi on the ground, there are stages that a signal needs to go through to reach the outside world from an aircraft. This can take from one to eight hops, with the signal travelling about 62,000 miles (100,000kms) in total. Once it leaves the onboard device, it will go up to the satellite, down to servers on the ground, to the outside network and servers for the content being served. Then it travels all the way back up again.

The factors affecting connectivity solutions on an aircraft are many. Size of the aircraft, which routes the aircraft flies and how many people fly regularly. Costs of installing and maintaining these systems are key as well.

The eventual goal is common: to deploy networks or provide services globally that have reliability – with the same type of connectivity and speeds – wherever an aircraft is flying.

Communication bands: Ku vs Ka

Providers use different satellite systems, on top of which is an alphabet soup when it comes to communication bands: C, S, L, K, Ka and Ku. Bands refer to the frequency range of the signal.

C band, mostly used by satellite television providers, uses between 4.0 to 8.0GHZ range. S band is largely used by home applications – including Bluetooth and baby monitors – which operates between 2.0 to 4.0Ghz. L band operates in the 1 to 2GHz range and provides lower bandwidth and connection speeds than Ka or Ku band.

The two main communication bands in operation today are Ka and Ku band. K in Ka and Ku band is an abbreviation for the German word kurz, meaning short.

Each band has its advantages which can prove attractive depending on the customer’s mission and expectations. When discussing High Throughput Services such as Ka (26.5-40GHz) and Ku (12-18GHz), both provide a media rich experience, enabling access to favourite streaming services, corporate systems and video conferences.

Dave Falberg, regional director, Europe, Satcom Direct, tells Corporate Jet Investor: “Ku and Ka band deliver the most terrestrial-like internet experience. The higher frequencies they use enable greater bandwidth to and from an aircraft, supporting the transfer of more rich data.

“For pole-to-pole coverage, Iridium enables truly global coverage for voice and low bandwidth data transmission. We are developing an SD Iridium Certus Antenna to deliver connectivity to light to mid-size jets so will widen the possibility to benefit from pole-to-pole global connectivity,” Falberg continues.

While Ku and Ka bands offer the fastest speeds and arguably the best user experience, they are more susceptible to factors affecting the service such as atmospherics, particularly when below 10,000ft. Falberg says they are susceptible to rain fade, so rainy or tropical humid climates can affect the efficacy of the bands.

An aircraft’s location on the globe may also affect the availability of connectivity. If there isn’t a clear line-of-sight to at least one of the satellites in the network, the users’ experience can be impacted.

This is not to say Ku and Ka are on par for all missions. Villar at Inmarsat Aviation says: “Ku has been very popular years ago and it started with fixed satellite services – such as TV broadcasting. But one thing that Ku was not born with was mobility. Ka is newer with a much larger spectrum than Ku.”

Inmarsat’s satellites have been designed using algorithms similar to those in cellular networks to allow passengers to be connected on the move, according to Villar.

“The higher speed you want, the more sophisticated the connectivity system needs to be. Chances are the size of that system would need to be bigger to tolerate this. So, when you start coming down in size, you face the limitations that everyone is trying to solve: ‘How do we shrink the system to deliver broadband capability to a smaller aircraft?’” he says.

Deciding the band best suited to an aircraft depends on how many people fly and which routes are flown most regularly. The type of aircraft also affects the type of equipment that can be installed. At present light to mid-size aircraft generally cannot support the tail-mounted antennas required for Ka band service.

However, James Person, senior director of Global Business Development, Business and VIP Aviation, Viasat tells Corporate Jet Investor that you can receive the Ka band on super-midsize aircraft such as the Embraer Praetor, Gulfstream G280, and most recently the Bombardier Challenger 300 series.

A rocket, bearing a Viasat satellite (similar to the one pictured), prepares to blast off. Viasat is one of four companies which put satellites in space. The other three are Intelsat, Inmarsat and Iridium.

“We have 88 different sensors on board.”
Steve McManus, Sales director, GE Aviation

“Viasat is the only provider with a high capacity, high speed solution available for super-mid cabin aircraft as well. With Viasat Ka-band on these aircraft, typical cabin speeds are greater than 20 mbps to the cabin on all plans, even the smallest data plan. Max speeds have been reported up to 80 mbps. This is very helpful when passengers are streaming video, as the Viasat network can easily support many users on the aircraft,” he says.

For smaller aircraft, there is the L Band solution, which allows users text, voice calls and light online usage is best. Research by Viasat shows that email communications was the top use of in-flight WiFi on private jets. Following that was web browsing or social media.

Falberg says it is not uncommon to include two different on-board systems to ensure that should one fail there is an alternative.

The Ku and Ka solutions are also best for fliers who cross various regions of the world. “The bands support powerful cybersecurity solutions too, which is essential as statistics show that it is just a matter of when, not if, a cyber event [attack] may occur on your aircraft.”

Costs of installation and maintenance

Finding the cost is hard. It is difficult for connectivity solutions providers to give a round figure without understanding the customer’s specific needs.

Inmarsat’s Villar sums it up well. “Connectivity is not something you pick off the shelf at a Best Buy store. It is a complex engineering system that has to have the input from the aircraft manufacturer and the certification from the airworthiness authority to make it happen. From the price perspective, we are definitely talking six figures to install broadband connectivity.”

Installation costs can vary based on what is already on the aircraft. For example, changing a router or antenna compared with a complete replacement, which will require complete rewiring. Falberg says the owner could also undertake other MRO work during connectivity installation.

Viasat’s Ka band covers North and Central America, the Caribbean, North Atlantic flight tracks, and Europe, according to Person. “Installed pricing on new aircraft, including parts and labour, begins at $400,000, and is usually somewhat more expensive in the aftermarket, as a new radome [to protect the antennae] must be added, and additional labour costs for retrofitting cabin wiring included.”

Viasat’s Ku Advanced costs depend on which radome is already installed on the aircraft. These can be anywhere “below $250,000 and upwards of $400,000” for installation and labour.

Then there is the specific plan to consider. These can be monthly, hourly and regional plans. Ka monthly plans start at $4,995 per month. While customers can expect to spend monthly or hourly, with hourly plans beginning at $5,500 per month including 10 hours of use, for the Ku Advanced.

Viasat also offers a Dual Band, which combines both Ka band and Ku band into one system. This automatically uses the best network available in one combined monthly plan.

Person said hourly plans work well for charter operators or for those who do not fly many hours per month. Whereas regional plans might be more suitable for operators who fly within the US only.

For Gogo Business Aviation, which offers air-to-ground (ATG) 3G and 4G network in North America, the price ranges from $67,995 to $133,000 on its AVANCE L3 (3G) and AVANCE L5 (4G) systems, respectively.

The AVANCE L5 monthly service levels range in cost from $1,895 to $4,675 delivering increased levels of data (from 1GB to 15GB/month, and higher plans include video streaming).

The cost of a connectivity solution is not cheap. But if you are ready to fork out millions on an aircraft, the chances are you will not mind paying to stay connected almost anywhere on Earth.

Michael Skou Christensen, Satcom Direct: “Operators are looking at how they can use the information that is running on the airplanes to obtain operational efficiencies.”

“Connectivity is not something you can pick off the shelf.”
Ray Villar, Market Development, Inmarsat

Dave Falberg, Satcom Direct, says it’s not uncommon to include two different on-board systems as a failsafe.

Common pitfalls

Executives used to spend an average 23 hours per week in meetings. This was before 2020. Now, whether its individuals or businesses, the private jet passenger wants a seamless transition from ground-to-air without hurting their calendar. SD’s Falberg says high expectations is one of the pitfalls of the connected aircraft.

“Connecting a computer to a satellite system on a machine that is 40,000ft in the air and travelling at speeds of up to 500mph, is pretty difficult,” he says. “Customers will often think that they’ll have the terrestrial experience in the air. While that is our aim, a variety of factors are in play that can affect connectivity.”

SD also suggests that customers sign up to its cyber security solutions.

“For ultimate protection, SD can even enable the aircraft network to become a part of the customer’s corporate IT network, so the aircraft cabin Wi-Fi system and connectivity is subject to all the same security protocols as if they were in their office,” he adds.

Viasat has seen operators installing less capable systems prior to selling an aircraft. “They realise their aircraft will take longer to sell if it has no connectivity, but they might install a ground-based solution that only works in North America on a super-mid cabin or larger aircraft that sometimes flies to Mexico, the Caribbean, Hawaii or to Europe,” says Person. People are also often confused about frequency bands, he adds.

Gogo’s director of corporate communications, Dave Mellin, tells Corporate Jet Investor: “The biggest thing is understanding the needs of those onboard and selecting a system that can provide the ideal experience for the number of people who will be typically traveling on the aircraft.”

“If the aircraft is going to fly primarily US domestic routes, ATG is the best choice. But if it flies mainly international routes and those onboard need connectivity, then satellite would be a better option,” he says.

Future of connectivity

Technology is the key to efficiency in the business aviation industry. Connectivity forms a big part of that offering, along with data, maintenance tracking and charter payments.

Matt Halsey, product manager, Intelsat, told delegates at Corporate Jet Investor London 2021: “There is a focus on experience now and I think it will still be that in the future. I believe in 10 years’ time we should definitely see broadband speeds opening up smaller aircraft.”

Comparing connectivity speeds to cars, Halsey said what really matters is how fast you can get to your destination. In other words, “an experience that is unfettered, without any interruption and delivering the expectation that you have”.

Michael Skou Christensen, vice president, Satcom Direct, echoed the same, saying operators need consistency and reliability across an entire footprint of their missions.

Person agrees, adding there would be demand for speeds of hundreds of megabits per second to satisfy more virtual or augmented reality applications such as 3D, immersive, telepresence-type technology.

During the pandemic, Viasat took the speeds caps off its Ka band plans. This means that multiple people can now stream on the aircraft. Person says it does not plan to cap for the moment.

It is this same demand for streaming capability in 4K and soon 8K, that has driven Viasat to launch its next generation of satellites, ViaSat-3.

Person said: “It is near exponential growth. We already have five Ka band satellites of the highest capacity over Europe and North America.”

Until very recently, satellites could not be refuelled. Halsey said they are the one piece of the puzzle that cannot be fixed should they malfunction.

“Once you’ve got geostation satellites in orbit, you cannot go up there and fix it. So, in that sense, you are deploying a very complex asset that is expected to last 15-20 years.”

An Ariane space rocket lifts off from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana on July 25th 2013. On board is Inmarsat's largest L band satellite, Alphasat.

However, it is now possible to refuel them while in flight. Intelsat docked one of its satellites, the IS-901, to a Northrop Grumman Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) it deployed last year. This will power the IS-901 for another five years. A second vehicle, MEV-2, was also deployed to dock with Intelsat 10-02 in 2021, adding further five years to this satellite’s life.

In the future, MEV technology could be used to correct issues that may occur as a satellite travels to its orbital location post-launch.

Christensen says: “The future of connectivity will see data management revolutionised. Operators are looking at how to use the information that is running on the airplanes – not only what customers do but data from the airplane itself – work for them to obtain operational efficiencies.”

He expects to see a change in the way data is captured, handled and interpreted for customers. This extends to maintenance as well as digitisation of certain processes.

GE Aviation's C-FOQA software is a current example of this. Steve McManus, GE Aviation, sales director, tells Corporate Jet Investor that data collected from aircraft can prevent aircraft-on-ground (AOG) events before they happen. “We have 88 different sensors on board, and we are doing 1,000 calculations based on the information coming from those sensors. There have been numerous times we have sent communication to the maintenance directors or dispatch teams before an aircraft has landed.”

Gogo plans to launch its Gogo 5G network accessible to the US first and Canada and Alaska next. Mellin says it will leverage its existing 4G network and 250 towers to provide “unlicenced spectrum in the 2.4GHz range, along with a proprietary modem and advanced beamforming technology”.

At Inmarsat, Villar says the company is focused on increasing capacity of its coverage for business jets on broadband and narrowband. More than 800 aircraft now have its Jet ConneX service.

Also, in December 2020, its 14th satellite Gx5 – which services Europe and Middle East – entered commercial service. The satellite is part of the company’s Global Xpress network. The company hopes to launch seven further satellites by 2024: five in geostationary orbit and two in highly elliptical orbit.

Early in 2021, SD installed its 500th terminal on an aircraft via the Jet ConneX network.

The various developments in the market point to one thing: the future of connectivity looks extremely bright. Halsey sums it up perfectly: “This industry is not standing still. We’re pushing back boundaries despite everything that is going on. We are trying to get new antennae, to reach smaller aircraft and putting up more capable networks.”

The rate of change is extremely high for connectivity solutions and it is impossible to predict what business aviation will look like in 2031. The industry continues to achieve great feats every 10 months. Who knows? Perhaps, in 10 years, attending meetings as a hologram will be passe.

CJI Connect

Michael Skou Christensen

VP, Satcom Direct

[email protected]

Dave Falberg

Regional Director Europe , Satcom Direct

[email protected]

Matt Halsey

Snr advisor, Business Aviation Product Management

[email protected]

Dave Mellin

Director corporate communications, Gogo Business Aviation

[email protected]

Steve McManus

Sales director, GE Aviation

[email protected]

James Person

Senior director of Global Business Development, Business and VIP Aviation, Viasat

[email protected]

Ray Villar

Director, Market Development, Inmarsat Aviation

[email protected]

Connectivity Buyer’s Guide: Who offers what

Yuvan Kumar, Reporter, Corporate Jet Investor

Yuvan Kumar, Reporter, Corporate Jet Investor