Aero-Satcom Sales Director Shaun Flanagan sheds light on the complex demands of government and head-of-state satellite communications
Business and VIP customers make very specific demands of their cabin connectivity, in particular that it must work, as expected, with any device, every time, but there are also considerations of price, security and aftersales service. Yet there is a very specific customer base so demanding that only individual solutions, often on an aircraft-by-aircraft basis, will do. These are government and head-of-state operators, where national security sets the gold standard in systems that might simultaneously be delivering pay-as-you go connection to journalists and other passengers.
It’s a market served, among others, by Aero-Satcom, a joint venture between Eclipse in France and the UK’s NSSLGlobal. Shaun Flanagan, Sales Director at Aero-Satcom, explains the Aero-Satcom construct and the company’s challenging mission. “To get satcom up and running on an aircraft requires a solution, it’s not a case of simply switching on a satellite service, selling a satcom box or designing a network that’ll achieve specific functionality, whether for a head of state/VIP aircraft or an ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] aircraft performing video transmission.
“Eclipse has been around for 20 years or so as an aeronautical satcom solutions provider, delivering satcom hardware solutions based on equipment from Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Cobham, ViaSat and others, then working with the satellite operators directly or indirectly through their distribution channels, for the airtime component. In the middle of all that, we do a lot of application development, building the optimal architecture for specific customer requirements.
“The French market began booming in the early 2000s in terms of the uptake of satcom applications, more so than in many other EMEA countries, where some governments were focused on and investing in war fighting, rather than considering satcom and airborne video transmission. Eclipse grew up providing solutions to the French government, for everything from head-of-state, through maritime patrol to special operations aircraft.”
Eclipse became very good at what it does through providing innovative new solutions for the French government, usually related to providing as much bandwidth as possible to and/or from an aircraft. Flanagan joined Aero-Satcom with the remit of taking what he describes as an ‘insular, French point of view’ and taking it to international markets.
“To do that, you need to develop specific relationships. Generally, governments go to niche satcom or MSS [mobile satellite services] providers within their market. These are usually very good at satcom, but get ‘scared’ when it comes to anything to do with aircraft, because they start hearing terminology and discovering regulatory issues they know nothing about.
“Eclipse and NSSLGlobal established Aero-Satcom to provide a Tier 1 distribution entity for Inmarsat airtime, capable of working with local partners to distribute aeronautical-specific solutions. NSSLGlobal is the largest distributor of Inmarsat global government airtime, effectively everything outside North America. It was already a Tier 1 distributor of Inmarsat into the government land and maritime markets, a fact that brought a great deal of interconnectivity with Inmarsat’s back office services, including billing. It also had access to the niche satcom and MSS providers already working with governments, having provided them with land and maritime airtime.
“Meanwhile, when Inmarsat launched its first I-4 satellites and began providing the IP-based SwiftBroadband service for the aeronautical environment, there were six manufacturers that could produce type-approved equipment for aircraft. They built a range of products meeting different market requirements, with distinct interfaces, various numbers of broadband channels and alternative protocols, some including in-built router functionality.
“As a reseller of those products over many years, Eclipse gained a thorough understanding of which would meet specific customer requirements. That understanding extended to the airborne network environment, from selecting the correct satellite services provider through to the configuration of the ground interconnect and implementation of appropriate security levels, since the cost of certifying equipment precluded a large number of the available solutions.”
Today, Aero-Satcom works with government operators throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), providing 24/7 global support to keep their systems working. “The same goes for head-of-state aircraft, where we provide hardware and/or airtime services for many countries throughout EMEA; we have support always ready for those customers, on the end of the phone.
“A major difference between satcom providers in the business aviation and government sector is that business aviation providers frequently have thousands of ‘tails’ on their books, often supporting them through a filtered system where first-level support from skilled aeronautical engineers is seldom available on the initial call. But most of the people who pick up the phone for us are ex-military operators – I flew on the US Navy P-3 Orion fleet for example, and we also have a former Royal Air Force Hercules engineer and a couple of people from the French AWACS community.
“If an operational government or head-of-state aircraft starts seeing trouble, the operator doesn’t want to hear, ‘That’s an issue with your router. That’s not ours, you need to speak to someone else.’ What they want is to speak to someone who knows the complete system… we do, and we can usually get to the seat of the problem very quickly.”
While head-of-state transport is typically about moving a principal and his or her advisors, entourage and press corps, in times of crisis, the aircraft may become a national headquarters or refuge from conflict. In this case, satcom is among the senior leader’s primary means of communication with the military and information of national importance is likely to be passed; security clearly becomes an essential parameter.
“These customers generally operate with security policies set in stone and, depending on the level of classification, they’ll go beyond commercially available security to national or NATO cryptos that need to be used over the network. It’s not always an easy thing to accomplish. Sometimes you apply the crypto and the communications channel stays open and the data reaches the other side, but more often, the sensitive nature of cryptos means some tweaking with the network equipment or service type is involved.
“I think one of the things making us so successful now is that we’ve failed so many times in the past. We’ve been learning those lessons for 20 years. Because there are issues of national and NATO security, there have been many, many times, at customer facilities and in our own lab, where our engineers have set the system up with the crypto and then had to leave the room while government personnel carry on with the testing. It makes things a little more complicated, but we always get there in the end!