Connectivity providers know that it is the quality of the service they deliver that counts, rarely the method of delivery. Yet connectivity remains shrouded in a level of technological mystery, relying on megabits per second (there are eight megabits in a megabyte, apparently), pipes (connections between aircraft and satellite, or ground antenna), upload speeds (moving data off the aircraft, through a pipe and slower than download speeds), download speeds (moving data to the aircraft, through a pipe and faster than upload speeds), and on, and on.
Delivering quality service is usually dependent upon understanding exactly what constitutes quality to an individual customer but charting a course through the technology thicket to arrive at that understanding is often a major challenge. It’s a thicket SD (Satcom Direct) has negotiated many times and one that it saw a pressing need to clear. The solution is SD Xperience and Michael Skov Christensen, VP International, explains.
“It’s a step into talking to customers about their needs and the experience they’ll get, both for people who walk to the right when they enter the airplane and those who turn left, because it also covers pretty much everything about how the aircraft is operated.
“There’s a legacy of talking about technologies and it’s traditionally been difficult to translate that into an expectation of experience. That has made managing the gap between expectation and what’s actually delivered particularly difficult. Someone tells you, for example, that you’ll have 10 megabits per second (Mbps). What does that mean? What will you be able to do? SD Xperience bases what we’re offering on what the client will experience.” It means the conversation starts off with ‘here’s what you’ll be able to do’, or ‘tell us what you want to do’, and the technicalities of that become irrelevant.
SD has been in the connectivity business more than two decades, and expanded its capability over the past five years into hardware provision, establishing SD Avionics out of its acquisition of TrueNorth. “That enables us to control the internal environment, which means we control the experience in the cabin, in the cockpit, in terms of support and in terms of value adds.
“Also, today’s aircraft have transitioned to digital systems, generating huge amounts of data. But dumping that big data on a customer doesn’t make for a good experience – what are they going to do with it? If we capture it, manipulate or filter it, then present it in a useful, easily understandable format that enables flight departments to improve their efficiency, then we create synergies and an attractive product. Our hardware allows us to do that.
“Because we’ve become a manufacturer, we also know exactly what’s running on our equipment and we can plan for what’s next. For example, we’ve sold Iridium services for a very long time and we’ll continue doing that for their next generation of satellites, but we’ll also be building Iridium NEXT Certus units.
“And the glue that holds all this together is really our software. The original SD Pro modular software enabled a single log-in to access relevant information across multiple platforms. Now, SD Scheduler has become a significant step towards facilitating the ultimate SD Pro system.
“Almost everything in flight operations circles around when an airplane is dispatched and when it lands again. During flight, the aircraft needs connectivity, so the on-board routers need good connection and support if required. At the same time, flying hours become relevant for the maintenance schedule and, as soon as you switch the airplane on, cybersecurity is paramount. Once the airplane is dispatched, everything else follows and SD Scheduler helps gather all that data, synchronising the aircraft with flight operations for an optimised end result.”
Christensen defines that end result as the overall experience, the cornerstone on which SD delivers its connectivity solution. “We’d rather talk to our clients and partners about the end result, the experience, then work back, than look at each of the individual outcomes they want and then attempt to add them together. Now the conversation is about features and experience, not technology.”
So, what happens if a client does have a particular provider or system in mind? “They’re free to buy whatever they want, but we’ll always ask for a conversation about what they’re trying to accomplish. Is their chosen route the best one? We’ve always had a consultative approach to how we interact with customers, but now we have our three core activities – connectivity, hardware and software – we can talk about nose-to-tail experience.”
So long as the experience meets the expectation, SD has the flexibility to bundle services with whichever connectivity ‘pipe’ is best suited to the customer – it has solid agreements with Inmarsat for Jet ConneX (JX) and Swift Broadband, SmartSky, Viasat and, most recently, Intelsat, which makes its commercial service introduction on April 2nd. So long as the system works, the support is good, the price is right and the experience fulfilling, it really makes little odds to the customer whose pipe they’re using.
Christensen says SD is a top-level partner of both Inmarsat and Viasat. At last October’s NBAA show Inmarsat announced signature of its 400th JX subscription and Christensen reveals that around 70% of those deals were done through SD. “It’s testimony to how much our customers believe and trust in us when it comes to new technology. It’s also testimony to our relationship with Inmarsat, where we work together to drive innovation.
“And we were Viasat’s first partner for its Ku-band network too. We’ve worked with them to improve it and we were the first value-added retailer they announced for the upcoming Viasat-3 Ka.
“Nevertheless, we felt there was a spot for a third satcom alternative and that’s Intelsat’s FlexExec Ku-band service. It brings a number of unique features that provide flexibility for some customers. First off, we don’t have speed plans with FlexExec, the customer gets everything the network can give them. Right now, that means 10Mbps (megabits per second) to the airplane and 2Mbps off, but we’ve been very conservative with our initial announcement and the network holds great additional capacity.”
Employing high throughput satellites for the first time in a Ku network, FlexExec is the only dedicated business aviation service and particularly effective over high-traffic routes, but also enables additional capacity to be targeted as needed. Among the oldest satellite operators, Intelsat is also one of the largest and its capability is enabling SD to offer a new type of product.
“We’re being very flexible with some of our FlexExec subscriptions. We’ve started looking at pay by the hour. SD Xperience enables customers to define what 10Mbps means to them and then they choose the package that best fits. We’ve trialled 10Mbps on our jet and it translates into seven or eight devices working simultaneously, using WhatsApp, email and so on, comfortably.
“We can look at a FlexExec subscription, combined with our hardware and software, guarantee and warranty programmes, and tie it all into one budget that tells you exactly how much you’re going to pay per flight hour. It means customers who know how many hours they fly will know exactly how much they’re going to pay. It’s effectively a single hourly rate for the experience.”
It sounds like an ideal solution for cost-conscious operators, depending upon what those hourly rates will be… “We haven’t published a price list yet, because although we know where we initially want the pricing to be, we’re also very open to customers coming to us and asking that we create set-ups for them. If we see those individual needs being applicable to multiple clients, then we’ll react to that,” Christensen explains.