Capacity to Connect

posted on 10th December 2021
Capacity to Connect

Inflight connectivity has never been more critical to business and VIP aviation, so EVA asked Inmarsat, Intelsat, OneWeb, SmartSky Networks, Viasat and Moment for their latest news and comment

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, data usage among business jet operators reached new levels and as more jets return to the skies, there is no sign of data appetites diminishing. Cabin and cockpit connectivity are now ‘go/no go’ items for many missions and, while bandwidth providers deliver ever more capacity, the latest apps consume it and demand continues to expand. With multiple options available, we spoke to several industry executives for their views.

The big news from Inmarsat, its pending US$7.3-billion sale to Viasat, shouldn’t distract from the story of its continuing mission. When asked about the implications of the sale, Inmarsat commented: “Stability and continuity are core considerations for us in relation to our customers and partners. Together, Inmarsat and Viasat could utilise their highly complementary capabilities to deliver superior solutions for Inmarsat’s global mobility customers in aviation and other market segments well into the future.”
In the meantime, Kai Tang, Head of Business and General Aviation at Inmarsat, fielded EVA’s questions.

Business aviation data usage rates have soared and there is a hunger for more. With several capable service providers out there, what’s Inmarsat’s USP?
First and foremost, we are a global mobility company dedicated to serving only those customers whose missions put them in all corners of the world. Our services are in place today and serving thousands of loyal, happy customers around the world. We continue to invest more than ever before to deliver highly differentiated global technology platforms that will continue to meet the needs of business aviation customers long after the recovery period from the pandemic. With decades of experience in the business aviation market we recognise that inflight connectivity alone is no longer enough, it needs to be reliable and consistent, regardless of location, time or other uncontrollable factors.
Our long-established, global partner ecosystem delivers unparalleled expertise, value and support to our customers. This collaborative mindset enables us to present a complete solution across network, hardware and service.

How does Inmarsat support its customers?
We own and operate the world’s only fully redundant, global Ka-band satellite network. It runs our Jet ConneX service and allows us complete end-to-end visibility and control, in turn enabling us to be more responsive to the unique requirements of business aviation customers. We also own and operate our award-winning SwiftBroadband service, which continues to be the solution of choice for thousands of business jets.
We work hand in hand with our value-added resellers (VAR) to ensure they are fully equipped and enabled to support end users’ needs. We believe that competition is key to creating innovation and value for customers, and we’re proud that our VAR have created such differentiated value and choices when delivering Inmarsat service to customers.

Inmarsat serves multiple markets. Does that mean niche users, including business aviation, take the bandwidth left over after your major markets have taken their share?
Business aviation is by no means a niche market for us. These are some of our highest priority users. We’re one of the few operators offering a guaranteed speed to the subscription, meaning we pledge that each end user will get no less than their contracted speeds, and they consistently benefit from the higher speeds we can deliver. The benefit of this approach is that each customer is guaranteed service. We have more than 30 years’ experience balancing capacity for global, mobile customers and that history allows us to plan our future capacity demands ahead of need.
Intelsat delivers business aviation connectivity through its FlexExec product. Mark Rasmussen, Senior Vice President, Mobility, was ready to answer questions.

How is Intelsat satisfying the expanding market for data, and what’s your USP?
Flexibility and simplicity are important features of FlexExec. We offer the same maximum data speed to everyone, regardless of the plan selected, including by-the-hour and unlimited plans. Moreover, Satcom Direct’s new Plane Simple antenna has been optimised for a seamless internet experience with the FlexExec network and consists of just two LRUs, freeing up valuable cabin luggage space. And to keep things simple, SD provides the best service support in the industry, with a custom suite of applications designed to simplify flight planning and operations.

How do you support your customers?
Intelsat provides a fully managed service to SD that ensures a premium level of inflight connectivity to every aircraft. With dedicated support from our operations team, we proactively monitor every flight on the FlexExec network to ensure the best performance with beam switching and service level agreements. In the unlikely event of a fault with the connection, Intelsat is able, in most cases, to remedy the problem in real time over the air.

FlexExec is delivered exclusively through SD. How does that work?
Specifically designed for business aviation, FlexExec is a global, Ku-band, high-speed network with multiple layers of high-throughput satellite coverage. That means we have bandwidth dedicated to those who fly on business jets so they can confidently expect service levels worldwide. FlexExec is powered by the global Intelsat network, which is the largest commercial satellite network in orbit and is integrated with an enterprise-grade, fully redundant terrestrial network.
FlexExec is the only network integrated with the SD Plane Simple antenna system and can consistently reach speeds up to 15mbps – as demonstrated during a series of recent US, transatlantic and European validation flights.

Ben Griffin, VP Mobility at OneWeb, is excited about the company’s low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation and its promise to deliver high-speed broadband literally everywhere. Around half the 648-craft network had been launched by early December 2021, with full service expected from late 2022 and aviation connection following early in 2023.

How will OneWeb satisfy business and VIP aviation? What do you promise that others do not?
Our network will offer more than 4Tbps, revolutionising business aviation connectivity because it’s so fast and disruptive. We have more than enough capacity to meet expanding demand, but we’re already looking at what a Generation 2 network might look like. Compared to their geostationary satellite cousins, LEO satellites have a shorter lifespan, meaning we can update the network more rapidly; Gen 2 will offer a huge increase in capacity, perhaps from as early as the late 2020s.
We examined the business aviation market and recognised that there are excellent providers out there delivering connectivity as part of a wider service offer. They do that far better than we could and understand the market better, so we’re working with partners who’ll wrap up the very best in connectivity and take it to the market. We’re phenomenally good at designing and continually evolving satellite networks, but we don’t pretend to be experts in every vertical we operate in. Our partners will also handle our electronically scanned antennas, associated LRUs and customer service.
Because of the capacity and the fact that our satellites are effectively closer to the aircraft and offer exceptionally low latency, the speeds on offer will change how customers use their connectivity. Cloud computing without timing out will become possible, along with watching the stock markets almost in real time, while gamers will be able to engage properly, rather than finding themselves back in the lobby when they thought they were still in the fight.

SmartSky Networks
Creating a new air-to-ground network for the US market was always going to be a challenge and SmartSky Networks has suffered delays. Brit Wanick, VP Marketing & Partnerships says: “COVID-19 undoubtedly slowed progress as did a technology vendor dispute. Both have been resolved and in June we announced completion of all technical milestones and the opening of our operational network in the Southeast Corridor. Since then, we’ve continued to deploy the network across the continental US and coincident with our commercial launch, announced more than 50% coverage for business aviation flight hours at October’s NBAA-BACE event. We expect to have full CONUS coverage in the second quarter of 2022.”

You have an obvious competitor in the US business aviation market. What’s your USP?
We’re entering the market with a superior network, innovative hardware, and a transformative data and services layer, Skytelligence. Through our expanding partnership network we offer customers an unmatched experience that enables choice of cabin Wi-Fi equipment, entertainment, business productivity and cockpit information, and options to support aircraft and flight telematics with a consistent and dependable network. We serve the entire aircraft data ecosystem, from passengers to operators, to directors of maintenance, to application developers.

How do you support your customers?
We have key relationships with business aviation services providers, including Honeywell and Avionica, which offer world-class avionics and connectivity support. SmartSky antennas and aircraft base radios are required for use of the system, with the antennas mounted to the bottom of the aircraft, like other air-to-ground connectivity systems. The equipment and installation are available through our MRO, OEM and dealer partners. We have equipment available today, and customers can take advantage of our current Early Arrival promotion to acquire and install the shipsets.

In October, Viasat strengthened its Ka-band offer with a direct service called Select, offering global and regional unlimited plans matched to an aircraft’s mission and featuring uncapped data as well as the company’s ‘no speed limit’ connectivity. Claudio D’Amico, Viasat business area director for Business Aviation, was ready to answer questions.

With Select you are satisfying customers’ growing demand for data, but how exactly does the offer work?
It’s a service plan portfolio designed to deliver performance, flexibility and value. Within that we offer packages designed to satisfy operator needs, with no data caps, because we know they don’t like them, and delivering the same service speeds, typically greater than 20mbps, across all plans; we’ve had customers telling us they’ve been getting up to 90mbps.
We’re addressing two primary areas, with a set of regional plans for North America and Europe, and we’re addressing other regions through a set of global plans; we cover 90% of business jet routes. For example, an operator doing most of their flying in North America would take a regional package and contract extra data for a once-a-year trip to Europe, but an operator regularly flying transatlantic would save money with a global plan.
The plans are flexible to suit not only regions and mission profiles, but also whether customers are light or heavier users. And we don’t have restrictions on when the service is available. Our customers can connect from ramp to ramp. Connection speed is the same regardless of plan and with the ViaSat-3 constellation coming on line in 2022 we’ll have even more capacity, which is very exciting.

An Alternative Moment
French company Moment takes a rather different approach to business aviation connectivity, through its Flymingo Box portable server and separate wireless streaming platform. CEO and Co-Founder Tanguy Morel says: “Passengers expect new standards for cabin comfort and inflight services and communication. This represents a challenge for business aviation operators in terms of innovation and performance; connected solutions that include digital platforms enable unparalleled inflight connectivity and provide a more complete passenger experience.
“Embedded connectivity technology ought to be integrated early on in new cabin designs, since in addition to being affordable and offering total flexibility to operators, scalable digital platforms are suitable for business jets of any size, enhancing the travel experience by providing access to a digital guest portal. This allows operators to personalise their on-board offer and guarantees a reliable communications environment to their passengers.”