On 21 February, Inmarsat celebrated Satcom Direct’s first decade in support of its IP-based SwiftBroadband (SBB) data service solution. Inmarsat had confirmed SD as an aerospace distribution licence partner in 2008, the latter quickly expanding the offering beyond merely reselling to its business, government and military aviation customers.
The two companies have actually worked closely together for 20 years and the relationship continues to flourish, through SwiftBroadband and Jet ConneX, based on sound principles that are perhaps even more important to SD today than they were when it entered the market in 1997. Michael Rack, Inmarsat Aviation Senior Vice President, explains: “SD’s strong focus on providing stellar customer support is such an important component to the success of SwiftBroadband. Customers share stories of how SD has gone above and beyond to ensure the aircraft is connected. It’s what we look for in a partner. People willing to go all out to support the customer.
“Over the last 10 years, Inmarsat has created multiple classes, or speeds, of SwiftBroadband supporting smaller antennas, enabling smaller aircraft to have a reliable cabin connectivity option. We also launched the Alphasat satellite a few years ago, to increase capacity for the entire EMEA region. This year, we co-led the effort with Cobham to get SwiftBroadband validated as a safety service with the FAA. SD has been a tremendous partner through it all, supporting test and deployment, and coordinating customer communication.”
A cynical observer might suggest the agreement to resell SwiftBroadband was sufficient to guarantee SD success, but instead the company used it as a means to develop its own product line. Michael Skou Christensen, SD’s VP International, says: “SD was among the first companies to work with Inmarsat as a SwiftBroadband value-added reseller, giving us the advantage of understanding its potential and opportunities, which helped us deliver a better service to our customers. As was one of the first truly robust airtime delivery systems that brought meaningful connectivity to business aviation, it also helped us create our worldwide aviation footprint. When users came to us for the service, we added value to the offering in other ways. It also helped us support the growth of Inmarsat’s service presence worldwide. The relationship is mutually beneficial and always has been.”
SwiftBroadband opened a new era of inflight connectivity, one in which SD was a pioneer, but which wasn’t without its challenges. Christensen comments: “The biggest challenge was identifying the market’s requirements and then deciding how to work together to supply that. We work with a variety of aviation customers from military through to owner pilots, so we’re able to feed their needs back to Inmarsat and our other airtime suppliers, helping develop new services. The challenge for all of us is keeping up with the changing demands of the market place.” From Inmarsat’s point of view, Rack identifies a slightly different set of demands: “I’d say the major challenge is competition. For Inmarsat, having multiple channel partners keeps everyone on their game. It keeps price reasonable. It keeps quality high. It keeps sales teams engaged. In the end, all these benefit our customers. SD does such a great job, they often question why we need other partners…”
Looking back over the cooperation, Christensen reckons: “In our relationship with Inmarsat we’ve focussed on building a trusted rapport that ensures we add value for our customers and remain dedicated to supporting the growth of Inmarsat’s aviation division. We continue to develop the relationship, which benefits from mutual respect and a single desire to provide the services it wants to the aviation community.”
With Inmarsat’s Jet ConneX offering previously unreachable speeds, it seems reasonable to expect that both the provider and SD will begin gently phasing the SwiftBroadband product out. In fact, the opposite is true, since SBB is enjoying something of a renaissance. “It’s quite an exciting time for SwiftBroadband. It, and the L-band backbone it sits on, are poised for the next chapter. In less than 24 months, we’ll begin launching the I-6 satellites. They’ll host an L-band payload that will double the available bandwidth, triple the channels available, and support dynamic services, including beam tracking and custom beam shapes. Most importantly, current terminals will be backwards compatible. It means it will be a toss-up over whether SwiftBroadband is used primarily for safety services, cabin connectivity on smaller jets, or UAVs,” Rack explains.
Christensen also sees a bright future for SBB. “The business aviation market has so many varying needs that we expect the service to continue for years to come. Jet ConneX is the perfect solution for mid- to large-cabin aircraft that can support its hardware, software and cost requirements. But Inmarsat also provides SBB solutions that suit small- to mid-size cabins, as well as rotary aircraft, and we anticipate developing those services in conjunction with them.”
Nonetheless, Jet ConneX remains the solution of choice for larger jets and for that, Rack says, “SD is an invaluable partner. They go above and beyond, working integration issues with us to maximise the customers’ experience.” “Right now, we are the largest value-added reseller of the Jet ConneX offering,” Christensen notes. “We worked with the technology from the start, which means we support our customers with a deep knowledge of the product. We’ve even developed enhanced Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for our Jet ConneX customers, supporting proactive outage notifications, giving onsite support from an SD field service engineer, analysis of issues to establish remedial action and coverage alerts, as well as guaranteed email and telephone response times. We work across the board with Inmarsat products and how we advise our customers depends on what their mission needs are. This is what drives our counsel.
“In terms of popularity, it’s almost impossible to compare the enthusiasm for Jet ConneX with SBB’s launch. The business aviation sector has moved on significantly. Connectivity expectations are much higher and those that have the budgets want to effectively replicate the on-the-ground experience in the air. Jet ConneX supports office-in-the-sky connectivity around the globe, which is very popular with regular business aviation users travelling long range.”
While Jet ConneX and SwiftBroadband might be ruling the roost, Inmarsat is not standing still. Michael Rack reveals that its long-anticipated European Aviation Network (EAN) is set to become a reality this year. “The EAN is the first integrated S-band satellite and complementary LTE-based terrestrial network. It can provide speeds up to 70Mbps to the aircraft – that’s twice what the Jet ConneX tail-mounted antenna can do. EAN is up and running and the business aviation market is ready to launch, with its first business jet STC already underway. We’ll have more EAN announcements soon!”
For its part, SD continues to expand its wider business offering, which now includes internet, hardware, voice, flight deck, flight operations, entertainment, mobile app, managed services and support tool products. Looking ahead: “We see the connected aviation network as the next big step,” Christensen says. “As the aviation market becomes more digitised, we imagine that all phases of flight will become connected in one way or another. As this happens and all elements of the flight are synchronised from flight planning through to maintenance, the need for increased data transmission power, robustness and higher delivery rates at more affordable prices will increase.
“In conjunction with this requirement to deliver more information via the network comes the increasing need to keep transmissions and data safe. We’ll continue developing our suite of cyber security services, taking advantage of our end-to-end solution with the SD Data Center, hardware, software and threat monitoring services.
“We also anticipate that the need for connectivity will develop across all sectors of aviation, from UAVs through to supersonic jets. We hope to work with Inmarsat, and all our partners, in developing services that satisfy the growing hunger for data.”