Cabin Tech 2010

Business Jet Traveler » June 2010
Aircell’s high-speed Internet service offers connection rates that are as fas
Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - 5:00am

In last year's cabin-tech report, we described Inmarsat's Swift64 and SwiftBroadband satellite communications services as the best options for worldwide access to e-mail after takeoff. The article (in our June/July 2009 issue) prompted a reader to ask whether it might make more sense to retrieve e-mail over Iridium, a competing global satcom service that costs less to use than Inmarsat but was never designed with e-mail in mind. We replied that the maximum data rate of the Iridium service, a painfully slow 2400 baud, meant you'd have to wait an hour to download a 1 megabyte e-mail attachment. Iridium might be cheap, but the bandwidth limitations made it impractical for e-mail use, we argued.

But we'd also pointed out in the article the shifting trend among executives who say the majority of the e-mails they send with their BlackBerrys contain just a few lines of text, not large attachments. Lo and behold, most of the major satcom equipment manufacturers now offer e-mail over BlackBerry products that link through Iridium. And the passengers who've used these services seem to have no qualms about the bandwidth limitations of Iridium.

"It's all about managing expectations," said Jean Menard, head of commercial sales for EMS Aviation, the leading supplier of satcom equipment for business jets. "Once a customer understands that Iridium is meant to be used only for sending text e-mails with a BlackBerry-and not for downloading attachments or connecting to Web mail on a laptop-they're generally pretty excited about it."

BlackBerrys were designed to work over basic cellphone networks in the days before 3G coverage was widely available, making them the perfect companion for the narrowband Iridium service, Menard said. Other smartphones, like the Apple iPhone, pose problems for Iridium because they tend to be more data hungry, he added.

Recognizing the potential market for products that allow BlackBerry connections through an onboard Iridium phone system, EMS Aviation's SkyConnect division introduced the Forte in-cabin e-mail system last fall. Other companies, including Aircell, International Communications Group and TrueNorth Avionics, have introduced competing products. Though not yet in the "ubiquitous" category, this new connectivity option is catching on with business jet travelers in a big way.

Besides being a less costly service (the maximum you'll  pay for Iridium service is $1.50 a minute versus $8 a minute with Swift64 or about $8 per megabyte with SwiftBroadband), Iridium also requires smaller and lighter hardware than Inmarsat, allowing its installation in a broader range of airplanes, even single-engine piston models.

EMS Aviation's Forte AirMail e-mail server, which includes built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, is flying on about three dozen customer airplanes so far with positive results. "We tested as many as 10 devices simultaneously, and every person on board was getting e-mail in less than a minute," said EMS SkyConnect general manager Steve Silverman. "The passenger can walk from the ramp into the airplane, turn on the Wi-Fi and nothing changes."

Forte consists of the Wi-Fi interface, Iridium transceiver and antenna and costs about $25,000 to $50,000, depending on what ancillary equipment is already present. The full kit, ready to install, weighs about eight pounds and is certified for installation on the Bombardier Challenger and Global series, Dassault Falcon 50, 900 and 2000, and Gulfstream IV and V. Menard said EMS Aviation is working on a dozen or so additional aircraft certifications.

International Communications Group, a Newport News, Va. company that specializes in producing Iridium connection equipment for business jets, was one of the first to offer in-flight e-mail using Iridium and Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerrys. To support the services, ICG introduced an e-mail server called NxtMail that is capable of providing the wireless link inside the cabin.

ICG president Armin Jabs said the NxtMail server's target market is operators of small and midsize business jets, noting that the unit can link through Iridium or Inmarsat satcom systems. NxtMail over Iridium provides global e-mail service on a Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerry, and like the EMS Forte product supports access for up to 10 passengers at once.

"As long as you're using a Wi-Fi BlackBerry, all you do is step on board the aircraft, power on the device and start pulling down your e-mail," Jabs said. "To the end user it's just like using a BlackBerry through a cellular service."

The NxtMail product is flying in about 20 customer airplanes so far, Jabs added.
TrueNorth Avionics, a Canadian satcom maker with a line of products that leverages technology from a suite of software applications called Simphone OpenCabin, also offers a smartphone-over-Iridium solution. The company says it has more than a dozen users of its OpenCabin Smarter app, which lets passengers connect to e-mail using a BlackBerry or iPhone. 

TrueNorth has made a name for itself by turning to software rather than hardware for customers who want to transform the corporate jet into an extension of the company IT network. Benefits of the approach include enterprise-level security, significant cost savings and the ability to add custom functions by uploading new software.

OpenCabin software applications available from TrueNorth include all-digital PBX (private branch exchange), power-adjustable Wi-Fi; data routing and acceleration; master communications management display and a link to Google business applications, among other software apps.

If you aren't convinced that Iridium offers the bandwidth capacity you'll need for e-mail access, don't worry-there are plenty of other in-flight connection choices, and they're not as pricey as you might think.

Aircell, EMS Aviation, Honeywell, ICG/Cobham, Rockwell Collins, TrueNorth and Danish satcom maker Thrane & Thrane all offer Wi-Fi Blackberry links that operate over Inmarsat's Swift64 and SwiftBroadband services. In addition, Aircell operates its own high-speed data network in the U.S. and a company called ViaSat has launched the Yonder broadband service, which relies on Ku-band satellites.

Honeywell expanded into the e-mail-over-BlackBerry market a couple of years ago by installing a Wi-Fi communications gateway on the company's own Gulfstream G550 that allowed passengers to access e-mail using their corporate BlackBerrys. The exercise served as a testing ground for new Wi-Fi services from Honeywell through its OneLink satcom service, which connects using the Inmarsat Swift terminals.

Rockwell Collins also has sought to prepare itself for an expected surge in passenger BlackBerry demand by readying its eXchange service for data connectivity using Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones, such as the BlackBerry 8320 and 8820. Collins says internal research has shown that BlackBerry use is near the top of customers' lists of most-desired communications services.

ICG and Cobham Antenna Systems, meanwhile, have developed a dual-network satcom system named Sora that offers both Iridium and Inmarsat SwiftBroadband voice and data services worldwide. Sora integrates ICG's NxtLink 220A Iridium system and NxtMail e-mail server with a Cobham Inmarsat SwiftBroadband terminal. This combination is designed to enable Wi-Fi devices such as BlackBerry, iPhone and personal computers to operate on the high-speed SwiftBroadband channel, while the cabin and crew communicate using Iridium's worldwide voice service.

Now that some of the early teething troubles have been corrected, SwiftBroadband's popularity is on the rise, industry insiders say. Satellite communications service provider Satcom Direct reports it has handled scores of Inmarsat SwiftBroadband terminal activations in recent months as corporate jet operators add the equipment.

"We're seeing an extremely positive reaction to SwiftBroadband as customers use the service and realize that it truly meets their needs," said Satcom Direct vice president Howie Lewis. Even better, he said, customers are finding that SwiftBroadband is not only faster than the previous Swift64 service, it's also less costly.

Satcom Direct offers several SwiftBroadband pricing options that allow customers to pay for the megabytes of bandwidth they need rather than the time the system is turned on. The heaviest SwiftBroadband users, said Lewis, can reduce their per-megabit prices substantially. And even light data users will find that SwiftBroadband costs less than Swift64. "We're seeing that the Swift64 users who have upgraded to SwiftBroadband are actually using it a lot more because they aren't worried about getting a huge bill at the end of the month," Lewis said.

Another connection option for fliers in the U.S. is Aircell's high-speed Internet service, which offers coverage anywhere over the continental U.S. above 10,000 feet and connection rates that are as fast-or faster-than what you can expect to find in your hotel room or the corner Starbucks-and at prices that are nearly as low. (This is the same Internet service that's available on almost 1,000 airliners for $12.95 a flight.)

The onboard hardware needed to connect to the service consists of an Aircell Axxess unit with built-in Wi-Fi and Iridium satcom voice-calling capability, an ATG-4000 or ATG-5000 data unit and two seven-inch blade antennas installed on the belly. Hardware packages start at around $85,000 plus the cost of installation. That's quite a bit lower than the price of most Inmarsat and Ku-band satellite alternatives, plus it gives you two channels of Iridium satellite voice/data connectivity.

Aircell has tweaked the pricing model for business aviation fliers, phasing out a "light" plan that offered limited bandwidth for a reduced monthly charge. Customers can now choose among the Ultraspeed Unlimited, Ultraspeed 100 and Ultrspeed 40 pricing plans. The Unlimited plan costs $1,995 a month with no restriction on usage. Ultraspeed 100 is $895 per month for 100 megabytes of data transfer, with additional megabytes priced at $7.95 each. Ultraspeed 40 gives passengers 40 megabytes of data each month for $395 (about $13 a day), with additional megabits costing $8.95 each. 

To address the worldwide data satcom market, Aircell has partnered with Thrane & Thrane to offer a dual-band Iridium/Inmarsat satcom system, based on the Danish company's Aero-SB Lite satcom system.

Thrane & Thrane, meanwhile, recently introduced the Aviator 200 satcom system, which is based on the Aero-SB Lite product. While the Aviator 200 product uses the same avionics as the Aero-SB Lite, which was introduced last year, it requires only a small, compact blade antenna capable of achieving SwiftBroadband data speeds up to 200 kbps.

Thrane & Thrane is also rebranding its existing SwiftBroadband product line to adopt the new Aviator name. Accordingly, the Aero-SB Lite system (with intermediate-gain antenna) becomes the Aviator 300, while the Aero-SB Lite with high-gain antenna is now the Aviator 350. The Aero SB+ unit is now called the Aviator 700.

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