The ultimate CJI guide to business aircraft connectivity

Alud Davies
By Alud Davies December 17, 2018 12:20

The ultimate CJI guide to business aircraft connectivity

“We are all now connected by the internet,” said the late Stephen Hawking, “Like neurons in a giant brain.”

When it comes to choosing between different options for your private jet to connect with the rest of the world, it’s easy to be confused or even bamboozled by technology. If that’s you, remember the old story of the  farmer’s wife who, on being offered a choice of cats, said she didn’t care what color the creature was so long as it caught mice.

Do recall this quaint little tale as we take you through the plethora of connectivity options available. Select the system that does the job you need it to do.

Any event that causes an aircraft not to be able to take its next flight is a serious one. AOGs (Aircraft on Ground) events can range from engine issues to cracked windscreens, but an increasing number of events are because the onboard Wi-Fi isn’t operational.

It is hard to underestimate just how much the internet has become part of our daily lives. We use it for everything, from paying our bills, to checking sports scores, and from keeping in touch with loved ones in distant places, to crushing soda and catching Pokémon.

It is also an integral part of our work lives. We write little electronic letters to each other all day, and an increasing number of us make our phone calls using VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology that uses the internet.

When we are without the internet, we can feel lost. If you wanted to disconnect from the world 20 years ago all you had to do was take the phone off the hook and stop reading your post. Today you have to go through digital detox.

There are some places around the world that neither the internet nor a phone signal can reach –places such as the middle of deserts or the tops of mountains. For some, it can be the dream getaway. For others, it can be the worst nightmare possible.

It is not only the places that a phone signal cannot reach where we cannot get online. An aircraft is one of those places, although recent advances in technology mean that an increasing number of aircraft are internet equipped.

Being able to use the internet on a private jet is no easy feat. To the passengers in the back of the aircraft it looks simple enough, choose the correct network to connect to, enter a password and off they go.

Yet despite the challenges, passengers still expect to be connected whilst at 35,000 feet. To charter brokers an aircraft that does not have access to fast, reliable internet connectivity is harder to charter out than a well-connected aircraft.

“Many passengers will not fly without WiFi, without connectivity,” says Stephane Aligara, business development manager at ARINCDirect Cabin Services (now part of Collins Aerospace). Even if it is not an AOG failure, the passengers will not fly without connectivity, because they expect to be connected, for entertainment or for work. That connectivity that they have at home, they expect to have it in the air.”

But to be able to get to that stage takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of equipment. Although the prices of using the internet on an aircraft for the end user are coming down, the costs associated with providing the service are huge. From launching satellites to installing onboard equipment on the aircraft to pick up the signals, there are a lot of costs involved that the  passengers, the people using the internet, never see.

When aircraft owners choose which internet system to use onboard, they normally decide which supplier to go with. Behind that decision sits the provider’s decision on what type of connection it will use. And behind that is the decision on what satellite system to use.

None of these matter to the end user, who remains oblivious to anything other than when they can’t connect to the internet properly or if the connection is slow.

Much like with home Wi-Fi, there are different stages that a signal needs to go through to be able to reach the outside world from an aircraft. This can take anywhere up to eight hops, with the signal itself having to travel an estimated 100,000km from the onboard device, up to the satellite, down to servers on the ground, to the outside network and servers for the content being served, and all the way back up again.

In its simplest terms, all the owner of an aircraft cares about is the speed of the connection and that he or she will be able to get access wherever they fly.

They do not care about who provides the on-board router, or what satellite system it is using. As long as it works, they are happy.

There is a myriad of different companies providing internet services, but not all of them do the same thing. Some provide the onboard equipment to route the internet signal, some own satellites and some lease bandwidth from other providers.

If you were to ask owners what internet system they use on their aircraft, they might say Satcom Direct. Whilst Satcom Direct is part of the chain, it simply supplies the onboard routers that, in turn, connect to Inmarsat’s satellite constellation, to provide a Ka-band solution.

“I think the reason that we need this type of guide is that a lot of people enter this market, and there is a lot of confusion about what you need” says Chris Moore, COO, Satcom Direct.

Below is a table outlining the major players in the private jet internet world and where they fit in the internet puzzle.

Satellite companies

Gogo

Gogo, headquartered in Chicago, was really at the forefront of the internet-on-aircraft revolution. It offers two different internet solutions: Air to Ground (ATG) and satellite connectivity.

Gogo’s ATG system was among the world’s first and was adopted by airlines fairly quickly. Rather than routing a signal to a satellite, instead it goes down to a cell tower on the ground and then out to the internet from there. The main drawback to the system is that it requires the aircraft to be in range of a cell tower, something that is impossible over large expanses of water.

Because of this, the ATG system only works in the continental US, parts of Alaska and a small sliver of Canada. Gogo says that it currently has over 200 cell towers in operation, but it can install additional cell towers in key geographic areas if needed.

The second drawback is that the system only becomes operational once an aircraft goes above 10,000ft. This was an original design decision based on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules which at the time imposed a ban on using electronic devices below that level.

The FAA has since relaxed those rules, although Gogo has said that it would not be cost effective to change its infrastructure to enableusage below 10,000ft.

That decision could partly be due to Gogo’s working alongside several providers to introduce an entirely new satellite-based Kuband solution.

This opens up Gogo usage to a global network as, rather than using one satellite provider, it leverages several different ones to ensure that an aircraft can stay connected wherever it finds itself in the world.

Gogo installs several pieces of hardware on an aircraft so that it can use the Ku system. The first is a pair of two large phased-array antennas. A phased-array antenna is a series of smaller antennas pointed indifferent directions. By combining them into one system means than an antenna can always be pointed in the right direction, without having to move.

As well as the antenna installation, Gogo also installs an onboard server and wireless access point. The server comes with a solid state drive (no moveable parts) and a Wi-Fi box which is needed for devices to connect to.

Satcom Direct

Satcom Direct not only provides onboard connectivity, but also offers a complete flight system that also includes pre-flight planning, on-going systems analysis and post-flight data analysis.

For on-board connectivity Satcom Direct uses several different providers based on the client’s requirements.

The first of these is in partnership with IntelSat for access to its FlexExec Ku-band network of satellites. One of the main advantages of the FlexExec network is that it is dedicated to business aviation, with the open architecture of the network being designed to beconstantly monitored so as to provide the highest speed available in the areaswhere it is most demanded.

The system is virtually global, with the only dead spots over the poles as well as over a section of the Indian Ocean that aircraft would not normally traverse.

Satcom Direct also uses the Inmarsat Jet ConneX network, which promises to deliver internet speeds that match those you can get from your home-internet network. The system of four satellites includes spot-beam technology, which means that the satellites themselves can be moved to provide extra bandwidth in areas as, where and when needed.

On board, the Jet ConneX system uses a high-throughput antenna system built by Astronics AeroSat to connect to the Ku-band satellites.

Honeywell

Honeywell’s system, called JetWave, is an end-to-end solution that connects to the Inmarsat Jet ConneX Ka-band satellite system.

Honeywell’s pedigree is in avionics. It builds flight-deck systems for business and commercial aircraft, as well as a range of engines for private jets.

The JetWave system starts either with a tail-mounted antenna for mid-size business jets or with a fuselage-mounted antenna for large-size jets.

In the cabin, communications are handled through the company’s GoDirect software suite. This is a suite of software applications that provide users access to high-speed data connections, as well as access tolive TV, video conferencing and Voice Over IP (VOIP) telephone connections.

The GoDirect suit also includes tools for management of the internet connection, as well as flight-planning and scheduling software.

Inmarsat

Inmarsat’s Jet ConneX and SwiftBroadband solutions are amongst the most used in the industry.

Jet ConneX uses the Inmarsat-5 Global Xpress satellite constellation to give users a Ka-band connection. There are currently four Inmarsat-5 satellites in operation, all built for Inmarsat by Boeing.

The satellites themselves sit in a geo-stationary orbit, with each of the units having 89 fixed and six steerable spot beams that can provide coverage where it is most needed.

A fifth satellite will be launched towards the end of2019. Two further satellites, both 6th generation, will be launched sometime after 2019.

Inmarsat says i can supply broadband speeds of up to 33Mbpsvia tail-mounted antennas, and up to 500Mbps through antennas mounted on the underside of the aircraft.

Each of the satellites is connected to two ground stations to ensure continued coverage if one of the ground stations should go offline. The company claims that its service has an uptime of 95%.

Viasat

Viasat’s current generation of satellites gives near global Ku-band connections, aside from over the poles.

However, the company is currently working on three new satellites, each of which will be able to process 7,000Gbps. Current-generation satellites are able to process around 1,000Gbps.

The company will launch the first of three satellites in 2020, with all three due to be operational by 2022. Once all three are live, Viasat will have global coverage.

Viasat announced earlier in 2018 that it had struck a deal with Embraer to line-fit its Ka-band solution onLegacy 450 and Legacy 500 jets before they are delivered.  The first aircraft will be handed over to its new owner in the second quarter of 2019, although current Legacy 450 and Legacy500 owners will soon be able to retrofit their aircraft with a kit.

Viasat can do this thanks to a very small onboard system that only includes three line-replaceable units (LRUs), which is fewer than those of the company’s competitor’s systems.

In a large-cabin aircraft, the first of these is installed in the radome in the aircraft’s tail. This is the antenna and antenna-control unit (ACU), which is powered by the antenna power supply, which is usually installed in the rear of the aircraft. From here, a modem sits in the aircraft cabin.

For smaller aircraft, Viasat designed its LRUs to be to be fitted outside the pressurised shell of the aircraft cabin in the electronics bay.

With larger aircraft, Viasat can install both Ka- and Ku- band antennas. The company originally did this thinking that customers would want both bands to ensure uninterrupted coverage, but soon found that executives wanted both bands for back-up and redundancy.

The data plans that the company offer differ from those of other providers in that the speed of the connection does not go up as you pay for a larger data package – everybody gets the same speeds.

“All of our business-jet Ka-band and Dual Band plans offer 16 Mbps, regardless of the amount of data purchased.  This is the fastest in the industry already, and with the ViaSat-3 constellation, the speeds will double” says the company.

Intelsat

A newcomer to business-jet connectivity, Intelsat announced in October 2018 that it would introduce its FlexExec broadband solution to business jets, using its EpicNG satellites for Ku-band connections.

The company says that it will use multiple spot beams that are designed specifically to cover high-traffic business-jet routes, although it does provide global coverage.

Intelsat currently has five EpicNG satellites in orbit.

ARINCDirect

Now part of Collins Aerospace, ARINCDirect uses a combination of different service providers for its internet connections, depending on the client’s requirements. This includes the Iridium satellite-phone capability.

Once the internet signal is received from the on-board antenna, it is first routed to the RockwellCollins Airborne Data Router (ADR), which can connect to Inmarsat Ka, ViasatKa/Ku, Inmarsat SBB, Iridium or other networks.

The main advantage of the ADR is that you can assign different network identifiers for devices to connect to, which gives the network manager full control over what devices are connected and what services they can access.

The company does this through a dedicated cabin-management usage app, which gives full visibility on the data being used, how it is being used, and how much data in a plan is remaining.

Costs

Finding out the costs of obtaining internet access on private jets can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, an exercise in frustration. If you ask many of the connectivity providers involved it is still hard to get a hard-and-fast answer.

The problem is, for the hardware at least, that prices can vary widely depending on the type of aircraft on which the equipment is to be installed.

The first part of the puzzle is the antenna for picking up the internet signal. Depending on the aircraft type, this can be installed in the tail or on the belly of the aircraft.

It also depends on what type of antenna is being used. Traditional antennas were steerable, meaning that they moved to pick up the best signal, but the new generation are phased-array antennas. This means that although the antenna looks like a single piece, inside are smaller antennas that point in different directions.

Once the antenna is installed, more equipment needs to be installed in the aircraft cabin to process the signal from the antenna and, ultimately, deliver data to the devices on the aircraft that are trying to use it.

The costs involved in building and launching a satellite into space are astronomical. To give an idea about just how much, in a blog post ViaSat said that it cost $624 million to build Viasat 2, one of three new-generation satellites that it is in the process of building and launching.

Data-usage costs are normally all that the people in the back of the aircraft care about. The prices for using data on private jets has been coming down. Even three years ago there were horror stories in the industry of charter operators losing more money on flights than they were earning because of in-flight internet usage. But as with any newer technology, once it becomes more prevalent the prices start to fall.

Most service plans for internet access on private jets work in a similar way to those of cell-phone subscriptions. You pay a fixed amount for a defined amount of data and then pay extra on top of that for further usage.

Gogo is unusual in that it publishes monthly plan details on its website for access to its ATG and 4G service.

Prices do vary depending on if you were going to use 4G or ATG and, when it comes to hourly plans, on which ATG system you use.

At present for 4G access, Gogo’s most-expensive plan costs $4,675 a month, which includes 15Gb of data. As it has a higher data limit, restrictions that are placed on streaming on lower-level plans are removed. However, if you use more than 15Gb of data, Gogo will charge you $0.60 per Mb.

If streaming content in the air is not important, Gogo has an unlimited-data plan in place, which does not allow streaming. This costs $3,999 per month and has no data limits in place.

Monthly access to the ATG system, with no data limits in place, costs a flat $3,995.

But, then, these are today’s prices. Tomorrow’s are another question.

Communication bands

Choosing which internet service to use is also not a simple or straight forward process. Each different provider uses a different satellite system and on top of that there are different communication bands to choose from, with all of them having different advantages and disadvantages.

The two main communication bands in operation today are Ka and Ku-band, although there is an L band as well. Whilst, in the simplest of terms, the bands refer to the frequency range of the signal, there are other factors to take into consideration.

The K in Ka & Ku-band is an abbreviation for the German word “kurz”, meaning short. K band (without the additional letters) itself does exist but has a major disadvantage. Water resonance is at its highest in the exact frequency in which K band operates, making K band unusable for communications.

Ka-band

Ka, or ‘above K’ band, operates in the frequency range between 26.5-40GHz, the highest-frequency band currently in use. The higher the frequency used, the more data that can be transmitted, which should in theory make internet connections faster.

However, Ka-band is not as widely available as Ku-band. This is partly due to the higher costs currently involved in being able to deliver a Ka-band signal. This is in part due to the relatively recent development of Ka-band, though associated costs are expected to fall as the technology becomes more widely used.

Part of these costs are also due to the higher costs associated with launching a satellite into a geosynchronous orbit. Whilst it is more expensive to put a satellite into GEO, as it is much higher than any other type of orbit, fewer satellites are needed to provide global coverage.

Ku-band

Ku, or ‘under K’ band, operates in the 12-18GHz frequency range, which is in the middle of the K and Ka frequency bands in use. Ka-band speeds are generally lower than those of Ku. Another draw-back is that satellites using Ka-band generally occupy Middle Earth Orbits(MEO) meaning that more satellites are required to give global coverage.

Because Ka-band operates at a lower frequency, the signal is less susceptible to degradation than that of Ku band. This is especially notable in tropical regions, where signals can suffer from ‘rain fade’ which affects a signal especially at frequencies above 11Ghz. The higher the frequency of a signal, the more susceptible to rain fade it becomes. It does not need to be raining at a location for it to suffer rain fade, usually this occurs in higher altitudes. As well as differing forms of precipitation causing rain fade, the term also refers to electromagnetic interference from the leading edge of a storm.

L-band

L band operates in the 1 to 2GHz range and provides lower bandwidth and connection speeds than Ka or Ku-band.

Because of this it is unsuitable for streaming music or videos onto devices. Whilst that makes L-band impractical for real-world use on a private jet, L band is usually used for radar returns and, more importantly, global positioning satellites (GPS).

There are two other bands in use, C-band and S-Band.

C-band is used mostly by satellite television providers and weather radar systems. It uses frequency bands between 4.0 to 8.0GHZ range.

S-band is largely used by home applications, including Bluetooth, baby monitors and garage door openers. It operates in the frequency range between 2.0 to 4.0Ghz.

Satellite orbits

The orbit that a satellite takes around the world has an effect not only on the area of signal coverage it can offer, but also on the speed of the connection.

Russia launched the first satellite into space in 1957. Sputnik 1 (fellow traveller) was an “artificial” satellite designed to last only a handful of weeks, bleeping to a world agog as it went. It was launched into an elliptical low-earth orbit as a test for radio communications.

Since then, more than 8,100 satellites have been sent into orbit. More than half of them are still in orbit, although half of those remaining are non-operational.

There are four different categories of orbits that satellites use, although two of those categories is split into two sub-categories.

LEO

LEO stands for Low Earth Orbit. As the name suggests, LEO is the lowest orbit around the earth that a satellite can take.

The main advantages of LEO satellites are that a signal takes the shortest amount of time to reach an aircraft from the satellite. The major disadvantage is that because the satellites are in such a low orbit, many are needed to achieve global coverage. The satellites are also subjected to much harsher atmospheric conditions, so generally their lifespans are much lower than those located in a higher orbit.

The Iridium satellite constellation operating in LEO currently includes 66 satellites that provide global coverage. This is an L-band connection, which is used for voice and data services to satellite phones.

MEO

MEO, or Medium Earth Orbit, sits between LEO and GEO orbits, with an average height of 20,200km above sea level. The actual space defined as MEO is the widest of all categories, stretching from 2,000km to 35,786 km.

Because satellites are in a higher orbit than those in a low earth orbit, the signal that they transmit is visible in one location for a longer period. Therefore, fewer satellites are need for global coverage than those in LEO.

GEO

GEO covers two distinct types of orbits: geostationary and geosynchronous.

Whilst both orbits involve the satellite moving around the earth as it turns, the main difference is that geostationary satellites move along a fixed path along the equator.

Because the satellite moves along the equator, coverage is not global, with dead areas occurring as the signals get closer towards the poles.

Geostationary and geosynchronous satellites are both launched high into the atmosphere, with the advantage being that as they are so high they can cover more of the earth. It is because of this that ViaSat only needs three satellites to cover the entire planet.

From a user’s perspective, the main downside to satellites in GEO is the amount of time that it takes for a signal to get from one place to another.

However, the main downside to GEO satellites is the cost involved. Not only is the technology involved more expensive, but the costs of launching satellites in GEO are also substantially higher.

HEO

HEO, like GEO, covers two different orbit types. The first, as the name would suggest, stands for High Earth Orbit.

Few satellites are placed into a high earth orbit as they are costly to launch.

Their distance from earth also means that there is a higher chance of signal degradation. 

The second meaning of HEO is Highly Elliptical Orbit, a different type of orbit around the earth that follows the path of an elipse.

In a highly elliptical orbit there are two important points in the satellite’s path. The first is the apogee (the point at which the satellite is at its furthest away from the earth) and the perigee (the point that it is at its closest).

At its apogee the satellite’s angular velocity is its slowest, meaning that it can provide coverage for the longest time. At its closest, the satellite’s angular speed is its greatest. One of the main advantages of putting a satellite into a highly elliptical orbit is that it can provide pole-to-pole coverage. Countries including Russia and Canada, where the territory stretches far into the north, set their communications satellites into HEO. By launching several satellites into the same orbit but equally spaced out, continuous global coverage can be achieved.

*Latency – the time taken for a signal to travel from an aircraft to the satellite, for it to be processed and then returned to the aircraft


Alud Davies
By Alud Davies December 17, 2018 12:20

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