All the pieces are coming together for a massive leap forward in real-time connectivity for business aviation operators and owners. As Miranda Mills, President of Aviation at Inmarsat explains, with one satellite already launched on 8th December 2013 and two more scheduled for launch in 2014, the company’s GX Global Express satellite communications network is going to be ready for installation in business aircraft by the summer of 2015.
“This service will transform broadband services to executive jets. Global Express can provide an aircraft with up to 50Mbps connectivity, which is a massive advance on our current SwiftBroadband. At present Swift provides a contended IP service up to 432kpbs per channel and is delivered over our Inmarsat-4 satellite network,” Mills explains.
Inmarsat launched an upgraded version of SwiftBroadband at NBAA in October 2013, called HDR, or High Data Rate, which offers 650Kbps, or slightly over half a megabyte. GX will be nearly 100 times faster. The HDR service makes it possible for providers to deliver near real time TV, with an upload of news every 15 minutes. However, the main use of the HDR service is for voice telecoms and email.
“We have almost 5000 aircraft installed with Swift around the world. The real driver for us is that we have a global footprint, which means that connectivity doesn’t diminish when you are over the ocean,” she comments.
One major benefit that Inmarsat can offer customers, apart from its ability to spend $1.6 billion on a new satellite network, is that as a provider of safety services it is assessed by ICAO every six to nine weeks and has to maintain an audited 99.99% service reliability level.
With Global Express, the prospect of live TV services in-flight, which was possible with SwiftBroadband, become achievable, even routine, at a much more attractive price level. At this point, however, both Inmarsat and its network of distributors are still working on the pricing options for the service and no one is quoting any figures. What they are focusing on, is the possible range of services that all that connectivity opens up.
“We’re looking at introducing a service called GXTV which will provide business news and sport, plus internet access for business aircraft,” Mills says. She points out that there is little doubt that the big trend in IFE for the next few years and beyond will be travellers customising their own viewing via a huge menu of options.
With tens of megabytes to play with, many owners and passengers will find their in-flight connectivity experience far exceeds the services that they can access at home.
“Many parts of the world, and even the more rural locations in advanced markets, struggle to get one or two megabytes of connectivity. One thinks of much of Russia and Africa, for example. We have Russian clients now who have children who absolutely have to watch their favourite Russian cartoon programmes during a long flight. Customising programs to reflect the owner’s language and viewing preferences will be a very important part of connectivity once our GX service becomes available,” Mills comments.
Karina Larsen, co-founder and formerly CEO of Satcom1, a long standing distributor and value added reseller of Inmarsat’s services, reckons that the impact of the Ka-band service will be enormous but it will not entirely replace other services. “Many of our clients will want a combined network, with Ka-services and Inmarsat’s HDC, or even with Iridium’s network added,” she says.
Iridium has a constellation of 66 active satellites in a low Earth orbit, providing global voice and some data coverage. Next year, in 2015 it will be launching the first two satellites in its next generation service, Iridium Next, and will be much more focused on data transmission, whereas the first constellation of 66 satellites were prioritised for voice. Data speeds will be around 1.5 Mbps on L-band and up to 8 Mbps on Ka-band. Iridium has a $492 million deal with SpaceX to launch 70 Iridium NEXT satellites through 2015 to 2017, with each launch putting 10 satellites into orbit. Over the two years, Iridium will be refreshing the entire constellation of 66 satellites, plus six on-orbit spare satellites.
What all this means for value added distributors is a huge amount of work designing the billing systems and sorting out an attractive range of usage packages for business aviation customers. “There is now even more need for a specialist company like Satcom1 to optimise the network for business aviation,” Larsen comments. “This will be very analogous to the cell phone market, where there is a huge range of options, and where cell phone service providers can develop packages that are personalised to each consumer. Now broadband will be similarly packaged to suit every kind of user,” she adds.
What Inmarsat’s Ka-band will do is to move broadband pricing away from a “per usage” charge, which is appropriate to a relatively scarce resource, and move it to a fixed, per-month pricing model, based on the package of services that a user selects. This should ensure that high speed broadband becomes a regular feature on every executive jet in the near future.
“Even when we move to fixed pricing, if users exceed their package allowances then they will probably fall back into a per-usage model. So it will be up to us as VARs to ensure that our customers are on the right package and do not get nasty shocks when they get their bills,” Larsen adds.
She points out that the availability of Ka-band in 2015 will ensure that everyone wins. “The end customer wins in that they will get the service that precisely matches their requirements. Inmarsat wins, because it will extend its customer base, and the technical service providers win as well. Our expertise goes into the design of routers that can support all these new services, and the optimising of the packages and billing,” she comments.
Commenting on the management changes at Satcom1 Larsen explains that the reasons she handed over the CEO position to the company’s chief financial officer, Henrik Zinck was that she recognised that the company she co-founded had grown to the point where it needed someone with deep financial knowledge and stronger leadership experience. Very few entrepreneurs are smart enough to recognise when the organisations they have nurtured have reached the point where they require more professional leadership skills. But the decision was easier for Larsen, she says, because it frees her up to focus on partner relationship building, which will be key to the continued success of Satcom1.
“I ran the company very conservatively, and rather straightforwardly, keeping plenty of cash on hand to fund R&D and to avoid risk. Henrik brings far more financial experience to bear and gives us more balance and strategic direction,” she comments. Zinck is a former CEO of a v-Sat company and also has a background in software with Microsoft, so is no stranger to the world that Satcom1 operates in.
Chris Moore, VP International with Satcom Direct, agrees that the arrival of Ka-band services will be “ground-breaking”. “We are probably not talking about 50mbps availability in the cabin, but it will be in the tens of megabytes, which is fantastic, and it will be a truly global service for aviation, which is wonderful. Inmarsat always delivers a very high quality network so this will enable customers to drive content through their aircraft just as we do on terrestrial, fibre based data networks and the internet,” he comments.
Satcom Direct is a major provider of satellite voice and broadband data solutions for flight deck and cabin communications serving business, military, government, and heads of state aircraft. The company is a premier Inmarsat Distribution Partner, Iridium Service Partner, and ViaSat Yonder’s preferred reseller. It claims to support more than ninety percent of all corporate flight departments worldwide.
The challenge for business aviation, he says, will be to optimise the in-aircraft network and to support it correctly so that the customer has a very unique, high speed service. This is where Satcom Direct excels in its industry leading global support. “Honeywell has the contract from Inmarsat to provide the first GX antennas and terminals and we have a long standing relationship with both Honeywell and Inmarsat” he notes.
Moore expects the solutions for business aviation users to be very different from those that will be developed for commercial airlines. “If someone has bought a business asset to act as a business tool, which is what an executive jet is, then that drives a very different approach to content,” he points out. There will be some overlap in terms of entertainment content, and commercial airlines will want to use the new Ka-network to provide business related services to their executive travellers in Premium and First Class, but private jets are where the real innovation will take place.
Inmarsat’s Mills makes a similar point. “Business aviation has always been at the forefront of adopting new technology. We have made our GX network incredibly robust, with fail-over between the ground stations and with a solid hand over on a “make-before-break” basis as the aircraft transitions from one satellite spot beam to the next, to ensure a very smooth performance from our network. We expect to see business aviation aircraft flying with GX really quickly after the service becomes available,” Mills concludes.