There's just never enough productive work time available during the workday. That's why for nearly three decades, business aviation operators have looked forward to the day when they could use their aircraft cabins as “offices in the sky” where their passengers could continue to work as productively at 41,000 ft. as they could on the 41st floor.
Years ago, air-to-ground radiotelephones and faxes, complemented by onboard computers and printers, were the tools available for business aircraft passengers to maintain communications between ground and sky. That level of office technology seemed to suffice then.
However, about two decades ago a revolution in communications began taking place on the ground with the advent of Internet connectivity. The new technology began to collapse the information float to near zero between offices and factories, customers and suppliers, headquarters and subsidiaries. Connectivity speeds soared from 56 Kbps using dial-up in the early 1980s to today's cable modem, high-speed DSL and satellite broadband speeds of 1 Mbps upload and 20 Mbps download. Some ground-based connectivity systems now provide 45 Mbps, or higher, Internet speeds.
A digital divide rapidly developed between offices on the ground and those in the sky. Internet data conduits became figuratively as big as fire hoses on the ground, but remained as small as soda straws aboard business jets. Cabin connectivity crawled along at rubber-eared modem speeds that dated back to when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were adolescents. Thus, once business travelers shut the cabin doors of their business aircraft, they essentially lost Internet connectivity.
That all started to change some 10 years ago. Inmarsat launched its third-generation (I-3) satcom satellites in the late 1990s, a five-satellite constellation that supports L-band data communications with near global coverage up to 75 deg. N. or S. Lat. By 2003, Inmarsat was ready to offer the capability to aircraft operators. It is named Swift64 because it provides a speed of up to 64 Kbps per channel that is similar to a dial-up modem that uses a conventional telephone landline. Up to four channels may be bonded to yield a 256 Kbps connection speed. Using Swift64, it costs about $16 to transfer each megabyte of data.
In 2005, Inmarsat started to launch a fourth generation satcom constellation offering higher L-band data connectivity speeds. For aircraft, the service is called SwiftBroadband and it is capable of supporting connectivity speeds up to 432 Kbps, depending upon aircraft location, avionics and system demand. Similar to the Swift64 feature of the I-3 satellites, SwiftBroadband has near global coverage.
SwiftBroadband became a success because it offered the highest speed data communications with the largest area of signal coverage. But SwiftBroadband equipment costs upward of $100,000 to install, each megabyte of data costs about $6 to $8 to transmit and connectivity speeds can bog down with heavy user demand.
Those shortcomings opened the door for new connectivity solutions.
In June 2006, Aircell won an FCC auction for exclusive access to two 1.5-MHz chunks of bandwidth at 849.0 to 850.5 MHz and 894.0 to 895.5 MHz in the cell phone frequency spectrum. With 3 MHz of total bandwidth and using Qualcomm's 3G CDMA Evolution-Data Only (EV-DO) technology, Aircell then had the ability to offer high-speed digital communications between aircraft and ground stations. Data transfer rates of up to 1.8 Mbps from airplanes to ground stations and 3.1 Mbps from ground stations to airplanes then became possible.
With FCC license in hand, Aircell began fast-paced installation of ground stations in the continental U.S. to support users, completing the network less than two years later. By April 2008, the firm began taking orders from business aircraft operators for its ATG-series (air-to-ground) avionics and high-speed Internet services. Now, the network has been expanded to include populated sections of Alaska.
In August 2010, the firm rebranded the service as Gogo Biz to dovetail with the marketing of its Gogo brand high-speed Internet service for commercial airlines. Combined, the services became so well known so quickly that this past July, the company, which is based in Broomfield, Colo., and Itasca, Ill., renamed itself as Gogo. The company's first offering for business aircraft installations was the $56,000 ATG-4000 high-speed Internet system, an add-on air-to-ground transceiver that's linked to an Aircell ST 4200 Axxess Iridium satcom phone communications system and Wi-Fi router. The system provides Internet access to aircraft flying at 10,000 ft. MSL or higher. Total installed cost is about $150,000 to $175,000.
The firm now offers the ATG-5000 high-speed Internet system that uses virtually all the same ATG-4000 components except for the Iridium phone. It is composed of an air-to-ground transceiver and Wi-Fi router. Installed cost is about $100,000 to $125,000. The company plans to upgrade the ATG-5000 with a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) capability in late 2011, providing voice quality equivalent to landline phones, according to the company. Gogo Biz will support simultaneous voice and data communications, but voice will be given priority and thus data uploads and downloads require slightly more time.
Business aircraft operators and avionics shops have found that it's quite challenging to get theto sign off on permanently installed, aftermarket Wi-Fi routers, including Gogo's fully PMAed cabin telecommunications router. However, Gogo routers now are approved for installation on many popular business aircraft manufactured by , and , plus , and Gulfstream, along with , Piaggio and .
Three monthly service plans are available. Gogo Biz Unlimited offers connection speeds up to 3.1 Mbps and is priced at $1,995 per month. Gogo Biz 100, priced at $895 per month, provides 100 MB of data. Gogo Biz 40, priced at $395 per month, provides 40 MB of data. Additional megabytes are priced respectively at $7.95 and $8.95 for Gogo Biz 100 and Gogo Biz 40 service plans.
Some operators have expressed concern that Gogo may be a victim of its own success. Its network of ground stations could be overwhelmed with traffic as its popularity grows among airlines and business aircraft operators. To meet customer expectations, Gogo is adding capacity with a "sectorization" plan that will split the three sectors of heavily used ground stations into six smaller sectors, resulting in doubling the capacity of each station. The firm also plans to add new ground stations to accommodate the data communications load in high activity areas.
Longer term, Gogo plans to quadruple its air-to-ground connectivity system with directional antennae, dual band modems and Qualcomm's EV-DO Rev. B technology upgrade that triples data rates, reduces latency and doubles data capacity for “bursty” Web browsing applications. These technologies eventually will enable Aircell to increase bandwidth and capacity by a factor of 60. That will allow the company to accommodate a large increase in data communications traffic with no discernible decrease in system performance.
As described further on, Gogo also plans to offer Ka-band satcom connectivity in 2013.
The most-widespread coverage and also the most-expensive broadband connectivity link for business aircraft is ViaSat's Yonder Ku-band service. The Carlsbad, Calif.-based firm and KVH Industries, its maritime services partner, have assembled a federation of Ku-band satellite operators to provide coverage over the most heavily traveled air routes. Coverage gaps in the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Europe, along with Southeast Asia, China and northern Scandinavia were scheduled to be filled in by the end of 2011. By the third quarter of this year, coverage will be extended to include most of Canada below the Arctic Circle, along with eastern Russia, China and Southwest Asia.
Depending upon service area, aircraft-to-ground data transfer rates vary from 256 Kbps to 1 Mbps and ground-to-aircraft rates range from 5 to 20 Mbps. But passengers typically experience 1- to 2-Mbps connection speeds. That's twice or four times the speed of Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband data communications service. ViaSat officials also point out that up to 45% of the time passengers spend in aircraft is either on the ground or below 10,000 ft. and Ku-band satcom services are available throughout, not just when the aircraft is above 10,000 ft.
Ku-band satellites, similar to the Inmarsat space vehicles, are parked in geostationary orbits 22,300 nm above the earth's surface. Although the Ku-band satellites don't have as wide a coverage area as the Inmarsat constellation, they blanket their signal power in areas of high demand, such as heavily populated places, and heavily trafficked air routes and sea-lanes.
ViaSat's three-box Ku-band avionics system only weighs about 36 lb., but it requires a 12-in. dish antenna that must be housed in a tail-mounted radome enclosure. The Ku-band antenna usually is positioned in tandem with an Inmarsat L-band satcom antenna. The physical size of the Ku-band antenna and radome mostly limits installation to large-cabin aircraft. Equipment and installation cost upward of $500,000.
Yonder Ku-band systems now are in service aboard more than 170 aircraft. They're branded as Broad Band Multi-Link aboard Gulfstream aircraft. The equipment also has been fitted to the Boeing Business Jet and Cessna Citation X, along with Bombardier Challenger 600-series and Global Series jets.
Standard service plans range from $5,995 to $7,995 per month depending upon the length of the service contract. While that seems pricey, it's actually less expensive than Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband for Internet users who transfer more than 1 GB of data per month, ViaSat officials assert. SwiftBroadband has a fixed cost of about $6.95 per megabyte of data and that could result in monthly connection fees of $10,425 for 1.5 GB to $34,750 for 5.0 GB.
Ku-band systems continue to be popular with large-cabin aircraft operators, but ViaSat believes that Ka-band systems eventually will replace them.
Ka-Band — Future of Satellite Broadband Communications
Satellite network operators say there is a $1.4 billion per year market for high-speed mobile satellite data communications systems and that they can increase connectivity speeds by an order of magnitude with the next generation of high throughput satellites (HTS). That would result in download speeds that are comparable to mobile phone 4G networks on the ground.
HTS vehicles will feature Ka-band transponders in addition to, or as replacements for, Ku-band transponders used on current-generation satellites. Connectivity speeds will be considerably slower aboard aircraft because they have smaller antennas than those used at ground stations or aboard ships. However, Ka-band systems promise to provide as much as 10 times higher connectivity speeds than the best Ku-band satellite systems aboard aircraft today.
Compared to Ku-band, Ka-band has roughly seven times the total frequency spectrum available. Ku-band satellites have 27- to 54-MHz bandwidth transponders that support up to 1- to 2-Mbps download speeds. Ka-band satellites, in contrast, have 300- to 600-MHz wide band transponders that offer about 10 times the bandwidth capacity. Some satcom industry observers believe that Ka-band satellites will provide 10- to 20-Mbps connectivity, depending upon antenna size, avionics and system demand.
Gogo and ViaSat, among other connectivity providers, are developing Ka-band satcom systems. Gogo wants to extend its connectivity globally, so it has to provide other links besides its continental U.S.- and Alaska-based terrestrial stations. ViaSat recently launched its first company-owned satellite, ViaSat-1, claimed to be the world's highest capacity Ka-band communications satellite. ViaSat-1 will offer Ka-band connectivity to land-based users beginning this year.
In April 2011, though,became the first aeronautical customer for Ka-band services by signing a $30 million contract for satcom and Wi-Fi equipment, along with connectivity services, aboard 170 of its and Embraer ERJ190 airliners. Installations are slated to begin this year. ViaSat expects to develop a worldwide network of Ka-band satcom services during the coming decade.
Not surprisingly then, Inmarsat wants to leapfrog Ku-band satcom technology with its fifth-generation I-5 communications satellites. They will offer robust Ka-band connectivity in addition to the L-band voice and data communications of the I-4 satellites that were commissioned in 2005. I-5 Ka-band connectivity should make possible 10 Mbps download speeds aboard aircraft fitted with a 12-in. dish antenna, according to Inmarsat.
officials, though, are more conservative in their projections for I-5 Ka-band connectivity. They believe the system will offer roughly double the data capacity of current Ku-band satellites.
Inmarsat is paying Boeing more than $1 billion to build the I-5 satellites that will be based upon Boeing's 702HP space vehicles. The first satellite is slated for launch in 2013 and all three I-5 satellites are expected to be operational in 2014. Expected service life is 15 years.
The I-5 trio will have near global coverage and Inmarsat believes that its Global Xpress connectivity service, using Ka-band transponders offering 500 MHz of bandwidth, will provide aircraft with up to 20 times faster upload and download speeds than the firm's current SwiftBroadband service. Just as importantly, each of the three satellites will have 20 times the data communications capacity of the I-4 space vehicles, thus the system is less likely to bog down with heavy use.
Ka-band also should be a more-efficient data conduit, thereby providing users with a significant cost savings per megabyte of data. The cost benefit projections indeed were sufficiently compelling for Boeing to sign on as Inmarsat's distribution partner and to commit to buying more than 10% of the I-5 satellites' L-band and Ka-band capacity. Boeing's confidence in Global Xpress is driven in part by projected government demand for high bandwidth communications, especially on the battlefield.
However, investing in Global Xpress still is a significant leap of faith for Boeing considering its last foray into broadband satcom data communications, the failed Connexion by Boeing Ku-band system that was in operation for little more than two years between mid-2004 and 2006.
Inmarsat, though, believes its I-5 space vehicles will generate annual revenues of $500 million for the first five years of operations, and its legacy satcom systems are in use aboard 12,000 aircraft, providing plenty of potential customers for Global Xpress. Thus, there should be significantly less investment risk for Boeing. Inmarsat also believes that it has “high potential” to sign on other wholesale distributors prior to commissioning the I-5 constellation.
Rockwell Collins also intends to play a key role in developing Ka-band satcom avionics for end users. In August, it signed an agreement in principle with Inmarsat to be the sole lead for the design, development, manufacture and distribution of Global Xpress avionics and also to provide aeronautical services to the aviation community.
Based on such development, it's apparent that broadband communications will play an increasingly important role aboard business aircraft. With coverage throughout the continental U.S. and Alaska, the Gogo Biz system has the potential to grow to meet increasing demand. Throughout the rest of the world, a new generation of HTS Ka-band satellites, including the I-5 spacecraft that will be launched by Inmarsat, promises to bring high-speed connectivity to business aircraft travelers virtually anyplace they travel. BCA