At NBAA-BACE, Inflight Connectivity Is Alphanumeric

Gogo map of its 5G ground infrastructure.

Credit: Gogo Business Aviation

When it comes to inflight connectivity, the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE) was all about satellite communications. The NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) has brought the industry back to Earth.

At EBACE in Geneva in May, Gogo Business Aviation revealed that it had partnered with OneWeb, the upstart developer of a new low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation.

Rival Satcom Direct also announced a pairing with OneWeb and demonstrated its new Plane Simple antenna system for Intelsat’s FlexExec satellite broadband service. Inmarsat said it is upgrading its Jet ConneX service, used on 1,150 business aircraft, to JX Evolution to vastly increase inflight download speeds.

It was an alphabetic stew of Ku- and Ka-bands (OneWeb and FlexExec are Ku offerings; Jet ConneX is Ka) and LEO and geostationary Earth orbit (OneWeb is LEO; Intelsat and Inmarsat operate geostationary satellites). The rage at NBAA-BACE is more alphanumeric—as in 5G.

Gogo, a legacy air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity provider, wins for the most demonstrative announcement. During a lively gathering at a pub called The Pub near the Orange County Convention Center, Gogo livestreamed video from an Oregon mountain of technicians installing the last antenna on the final tower of its 150-tower nationwide 5G ground network.

Gogo President and Chief Operating Officer Sergio Aguirre served as master of ceremonies as a technician bolted in the last antenna panel while invited guests supped on free drinks and fish and chips.

Gogo announced its intent to build a nationwide 5G ATG network for aviation in May 2019, originally targeting its entry into service for 2021. But the schedule slipped to late this year after Gogo sold its commercial aviation business to Intelsat in 2020, then weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and global chip shortage.

While its ground network is live, Gogo says its 5G chip will not be available until mid-2023. It has appointed Denver Broncos superstar Quarterback Russell Wilson as its 5G ambassador to get the word out.

Rival ATG connectivity provider SmartSky Systems announced in August that its broadband network for business aviation is now nationwide. A decade in development, the SmartSky network uses 4G LTE and 5G wireless technologies and 60 MHz of spectrum in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band to provide a low-latency bidirectional data link to the aircraft. Each aircraft is assigned a unique connection to the network and does not share bandwidth with other aircraft.

Both SmartSky and Gogo are working toward, or have completed, supplemental type certifications enabling their systems to be installed across a range of business aviation aircraft types.

SmartSky and bizjet fleet operator FlyExclusive have teamed at this year’s NBAA-BACE to display SmartSky’s system on a Citation X-series jet. “We intend to highlight that SmartSky is a leader in innovating in inflight connectivity and that our network is live nationwide and open for business,” SmartSky President Ryan Stone tells ShowNews.

Bill Carey

Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.