As Mike Hooper, Director, Iridium Aviation Line of Business explains, after a US$3 billion investment in L-band satellites and supporting infrastructure, Iridium Certus is set to revolutionise cost-effective broadband connectivity
The realisation of Ka-band connectivity wowed the market with possibilities for live streaming, video conferencing and unlimited surfing over multiple devices. Yet at the same time, L-band offers very real possibilities for customers wanting broadband voice, email, data and cockpit connectivity, especially through the technologies exemplified by Iridium in its NEXT satellite constellation and Certus service.
Mike Hooper, Director, Iridium Aviation Line of Business, confirms that after a final successful Iridium NEXT launch early this year, the company’s satellite constellation has been completely refreshed, including a number of spares. “It’s operating today, supporting our legacy customers and some of the Certus opportunities in our other markets.” With a major presence in land and maritime communications, aviation, including commercial airlines and business aircraft, is just one segment of Iridium’s market.
Coming to aviation soon, the Certus broadband service is applicable across the Iridium network. Exploiting the NEXT constellation to the full, it’s an L-band product employing smaller antennas and associated hardware, which is good news for weight-conscious aircraft owners and for those flying smaller machines where broadband might previously have been an unrealistic proposal.
“We’re maintaining legacy services for our existing customers, primarily voice and data, but with Certus we’re moving towards services employing new waveforms enabling high data rate IP connections. We’ve launched Certus services into land and maritime; aviation certification takes a little longer, but our aviation programmes are into their end phases.”
Speak to any of the connectivity players or read their marketing material and you’ll realise their product is the best solution available. At least by their own reckoning. So why ought they add Certus to their list?
“Looking to the future, Iridium Certus will give bizjet operators extended choice – previously, there’s been a limited choice between very expensive equipment and services. Plus, if they look at Iridium as a portfolio of products, there will still be legacy products providing basic voice and data services, supporting phone calls or basic email and text messaging at a very low entry-level price and very competitive service costs. But step up to a Certus terminal, which will be very competitive and economical from the hardware and service pricing standpoints, and we’ll offer a bigger portfolio. Customers looking at L-band connectivity and wanting higher data rates were previously obliged to go to a competitor; now they’ll have choice, through Certus.
“And from a network point of view, since we’re everywhere, an Iridium-equipped aircraft will be able to connect to the server whether it’s over the US, Africa or the Poles. Our service isn’t geography limited. Because we use a LEO [low earth orbit, pronounce ‘Leo’] our antennas are also smaller and we’re very excited about the low latency we’re seeing in our future IP-based connectivity.
“People will be comparing Certus to the equivalent competitor offering based on cost per megabyte and equipment cost. We’ll win, because our LEO-network technology is simpler. Our partners are seeing the same; together we’ve identified a particular hunger in the bizjet market and our partners are looking forward to satisfying it.”
Hooper says that considering the industry as a whole, through business aircraft to the airlines, rotorcraft and general aviation, Iridium is the largest supplier of connectivity products. “We’re a default, providing the core or backbone, but if you look at the cabin, at passenger requirements, we’ll be offering a better opportunity with Certus.”
The industry has become used to an easy assumption that Ka-band is best, Ku-band a useful second option, and L-band primarily for navigation, aircraft surveillance/air traffic and safety systems. As Hooper explains, the reality is that Iridium founded its business on L-band and, through the NEXT constellation, L-band is very much its future. “Certus will win new customers and enable us to do everything we already do on our existing platforms so much better. And that’s everything from higher data rates, through lower latency, to interfacing through IP connections to a wide variety of on-board systems.”
Operators with Iridium hardware already installed should rest assured that it will continue to work even after Certus comes online for aviation customers. “They won’t need to do anything to keep their legacy services working. The NEXT satellites have multiple waveforms, including legacy waveforms for voice and data, with the addition of new waveforms providing the basis of the IP services that bring the higher data rates.
“Should an operator with a legacy device want to move to the higher data rate waveforms that Certus provides, then hardware and antenna changes are required, because a different, steered antenna and transceiver design is needed. Unfortunately, we can’t wave a wand that takes legacy voice and data service and magically turns it into a higher data rate platform; I wish it were true, but the physics just doesn’t work that way.”
Switching to an IP-based service means Iridium is making far more efficient use of frequencies it already owned. Describing the change candidly, Hooper reckons: “The NEXT satellites are bringing Iridium into a much more modern architecture that interfaces with the technologies in use today – our previous, legacy satellites were developed and launched in the 1990s. In fact, the original Iridium satellites were developed before the internet was available and, therefore, long before smartphones appeared. The shift from analogue to digital happened in that timeframe, technology moved on massively.
“But that’s the challenge in the satellite industry. You’re locking technology into a satellite that may have been designed six or seven years ago by the time it’s launched. You try to futureproof it, but it’s impossible to keep pace with technology development, especially when the asset has a lifespan of ten or 15 years. Developing and launching a satellite network is actually relatively easy, managing it over time is where the real challenge comes in and that’s something we became expert in with our previous network.”
Sixty-six satellites comprise the operational NEXT constellation, cross-linked to transfer data and voice across the network. Nine additional satellites are regarded as ‘spare’. “We keep them in our storage orbit, below the operational orbit. They’re ready to play a role in network management, to move into operational orbit if needs be. We also have six spares on the ground, kept in long-term storage and available to launch if required. Keeping these spares available is part of our core business continuity plan – we hope we never need them, but they’re important to ensuring long-term network integrity.
“The cross-links in our network are unique. They allow our satellites to ‘talk’ to each other and enable every satellite to ‘talk’ to the ground, managing the data routing. Each satellite also overlaps the coverage of its neighbours, providing complete coverage around the globe. No other L-band satellite operator offers the same type of cross-link global network, and our management and routing techniques are unique. Really, only Iridium is one network. Other L-band provision is through three separate individual networks that operate independently. Transitioning from one to another involves disconnecting from one satellite and ground station and connecting to the next, with no continuity between them.”
Just as operators moving from legacy Iridium services to Certus require new hardware, so Iridium has needed to upgrade and expand its ground infrastructure. “It accounts for a big part of the $3 billion investment we’ve made in the NEXT constellation and Certus. We’ve installed new routers, gateways, controllers and interfaces, in a complete update that enabled us to take on the newest and most efficient systems. Again, we were replacing systems first developed and installed in the 1990s. We couldn’t replace much of it previously because the ground systems needed to remain compatible with the 1990s-era satellites we had in orbit, to ensure network continuity.”
Looking further ahead, Iridium owns the waveforms, satellites and ground infrastructure at the heart of its offering. NEXT and Certus have prepared it to deliver gold-standard L-band connectivity into the 2030s, but Hooper reveals that thoughts have already turned to the technologies needed for the 2040s.
Iridium’s existing customer base will likely need none of this to convince them of the quality of its service. But Hooper and his team also have sights set on a raft of new Certus customers, connecting their cabins and cockpits with an efficiency previously impossible. But what will Certus mean to a device-wielding bizjet passenger?
“They’ll be able to support high-quality voice and email communication, any type of web browser interface, social media and online shopping. We don’t expect they’ll be streaming five movies simultaneously to five different users, that’s not the role Iridium is looking to play. We can support streaming, but it’s really a Ka/Ku function. Iridium’s right fit is where passengers want to keep up with email and social media and make calls efficiently. Certus for bizjets is all about keeping passengers connected with simultaneous voice and data, while ensuring the pilots have all the communications tools they need for safe and efficient flying.”