Opinion: LEO Satellites Poised To Transform BizJet In-Flight Connectivity

Credit: Inmarsat

Business jet operators have had two options for high-speed Wifi service in the last decade: air-to-ground (ATG) services or Geostationary satellite (GEO) services.

While internet speeds can be the same with either option, operations that don’t fly overseas may prefer ATG systems due to lower latency and smaller antenna sizes that fit on smaller jets.

For high-speed internet on GEO networks, aircraft generally need to be in the midsize or larger range to accommodate large antennas mounted in the tail or fuselage. GEO services can span most of the globe, including over the ocean, while ATG is limited to over-land service only.

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, while not new, are being launched at record levels due to investments from companies like Starlink, OneWeb, and Telesat Lightspeed, among others. These companies are rushing to bring wireless high-speed internet to the world’s most remote locations and are beginning to turn their eye to business aviation as a prime market for new in-flight connectivity services.

Aviation has relied on LEOs for many years, particularly for mission-critical communications unserved by GEOs, like datalinks, weather services and satellite phones, but the new generation of LEO satellite arrays feature more speed and more coverage than ever before.

Live Communications Demand Low Latency

Latency, in general terms, is the time it takes for data to transfer from one object to another – like an aircraft antenna to a satellite, or a laptop to a network router.

High-quality video conferencing latency should be less than 200 milliseconds or as close to real-time as possible (Evercast). In the post-pandemic world of constant video conferencing and the increasing use of VPNs in corporate networks, low latency is key to ensuring a great customer experience onboard an aircraft, especially for business jet users looking for a seamless communications experience from the boardroom to the plane. 

ATG systems, like GoGo, are ground-based so the distance between towers and an aircraft antenna is less than 120 miles, while a GEO satellite might be more than 22,000 miles from Earth, according to the European Space Agency.

Unlike these long-range satellites, NASA categorizes LEOs as satellites that are less than 1,200 miles from the Earth’s surface.

Other factors like ground stations, number of satellites in the arrays, slant range, horizon plane wideness, and other technical factors play a role in the quality of the service delivered to the passenger – but based on sheer distance alone, LEO networks are close enough to the Earth to start promising latencies nearing ATG and fiber optic cable networks. 

GEOs typically deliver latency speeds of 600 milliseconds and an incredibly frustrating conference call experience, while ATG and LEO systems can deliver that same data in 40 milliseconds or less (OmniAccess). 

In the past, aircraft operators had to choose between lower-latency ATG service that doesn’t cover flights over the ocean or GEO service that may not accommodate video or Wifi calling without lag, and some simply equip aircraft with both, doubling the costs of services.

LEO offers the potential to provide low-latency, high speeds with complete global coverage over ground and water. With traditional antenna installs starting at $200,000 or more and monthly charges ranging in the thousands, the connectivity platform an aircraft owner chooses is an important long-term decision in the operating cost of an aircraft. 

Constellation Arrays Planned

As of today, Starlink has more than 2,400 operational LEO satellites, according to spaceflight analyst Jonathan McDowell, which is only the beginning of its plans to launch over 30,000, pending FCC approval.

British competitor OneWeb has launched more than 400 satellites – but it is partnering with industry leader GoGo to provide in-flight service (Space News). With over 6,500 aircraft flying with GoGo ATG systems, GoGo has extensive knowledge of business aviation but will face stiff competition against other LEO networks in the size of their arrays. 

Bloomberg reported Amazon’s Jeff Bezos plans to launch his own LEO network, Kupier Systems of more than 7,000 satellites. GalaxySpace, a Chinese company, plans to launch up to 1,000 and even the European Union has announced its own LEO internet system to reduce European reliance on US-based technology.

The race is on for worldwide, wireless internet coverage. In time, this will give business jet passengers access to the internet that mirrors the services they use on the ground.

Next Steps: Build The Antennas 

Networks are already in orbit and growing, but the next challenge is building the antennas to receive services onboard.

Unlike GEO and ATG antennas, LEOs need an antenna that can move with the LEO satellites that shift frequently, which brings unique design challenges and the need for new approvals from the FAA.

In early July, the Federal Communications Commission authorized Starlink to use the 12 GHz band for ESIMS “Earth Stations in Motion”, on boats and aircraft. Hawaiian Airlines is the first airline to announce it will offer Starlink connectivity on its aircraft with plans to start services in 2023. 

Service providers and aviation engineers are working on aircraft antenna designs to receive LEO signals, some are already making headway with Electronically Steerable Antennas.

In a recent Tweet, Elon Musk confirmed he is testing antennas on his own private aircraft but didn’t specify which one: “Yes, I am testing Starlink on the plane. Some polishing needed, but it’s working quite well.” The renowned entrepreneur owns a couple of Gulfstream 550s as well as a Gulfstream 650ER (AMSTAT). 

Editor's Note: This column has been edited to note that it is an opinion piece. 

Jessie Naor is President of GrandView Aviation, a subsidiary of AirMed International and Global Medical Response. She currently sits on the National Air Transportation Association’s Board of Governors and is Vice-Chair of the Air Charter Safety Foundation. Naor was a member of the FAA’s Duty & Rest ARC and an NBAA Top 40 under 40 in 2020. She holds an associate’s degree in Air Traffic Control, CCBC Catonsville, a BA in Aviation Business Administration from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and an MBA in Management & Finance from The Johns Hopkins University--Carey Business School.