ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Broadband to the Bizjet Cabin

By James W. Ramsey | May 1, 2006
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Connectivity is a priority in this fast-paced business environment. Executives flying in today’s corporate aircraft want high-speed, dependable communications. Avionics suppliers, satellite communications service providers and airframers have designed solutions and are set to introduce the latest advances in broadband Internet/e-mail, live television and support for onboard cell phones.

Inmarsat’s Swift64 service provides data communications to the bizjet world with single-channel speeds in the tens of Kbits/s, equal to that of ground-based Internet services. Last year ARINC launched its SKYLink broadband bizjet service with Gulfstream. And broadband Internet services via Connexion by Boeing (CBB) and Inmarsat–through the latter’s new I-4 satellites–are set to be operational on corporate aircraft within six months to a little more than a year.

"Productivity is the name of the game" in the bizjet market, says Tim Rayl, senior marketing director with Rockwell Collins Business & Regional Systems. "Airplanes are becoming less leisure items and [more] productivity tools. So a very big part of our business plan [going] forward is to be involved in the information management revolution."

The No. 1 reason for selling a business jet is flexibility–"being able to make your own schedule, go where you need to go and be as effective as possible," says Marc Bouliane, product planning manager for Bombardier’s Global aircraft platform. "It’s natural that customers see high-speed data as an extension of their office capabilities, and so providing it is really essential. It’s a natural progression of where we are today."

Progress Made

In the past two years commercial aviation has moved forward. The Connexion by Boeing broadband service is now in operation on nine international carriers. Bizjet connectivity has increased via installation of high-speed data (HSD) terminals that use the Swift64 service. Collins has developed a new generation of high-speed transceivers that use the amplifier in the aircraft’s satcom box. The company has added channels for the new Swift Broadband service. "They support Swift64, but are already provisioned for Swift Broadband," Rayl declares.

Collins’ new 2100 and 2120 HSD terminals offer one and two channels of Swift64, respectively. Both have hardware provisions for Swift Broadband. "So when Swift Broadband actually gets turned on, we’ll just have to add a software service bulletin to enable the feature," Rayl says.

Some 75 Bombardier Global Express and Global 5000 bizjets are equipped with the HSD systems for both voice and data. One channel of Swift64 is standard on the Global 5000, and two channels of Swift64 are standard on the new ultra-long-range XRS. "On top of that, we have two channels of voice and one channel of data using Inmarsat, and one channel of Iridium service as well, available on each aircraft," Bouliane says. "So if one goes down, the other is available."

Honeywell also offers a new HD-128 high-speed digital transceiver that allows bizjets to access Internet and e-mail. It has been retrofitted on four different Gulfstream models, according to Tom McDonald, product marketing manager for long-range communications. HD-128 offers two channels of Swift64 in a single box, compared with a previous Honeywell system that required two separate boxes. Honeywell’s system also can be upgraded to Swift Broadband.

Wireless local area network (LAN) technology also is becoming more popular in the bizjet market. Standard on the Global Express XRS and optional in the Global 5000, it is installed on more than 20 Global Express aircraft. "We are using wireless for control of the cabin management system as well as laptop connectivity to the data system," Rayl says. "So wireless is getting to be fairly commonplace."

Broadband Competition

"A couple of years ago, the hot ticket was Swift64," says Rayl. The system initially offered a 64-Kbit/s rate, but "now commonly you will see two Swift64 modems or terminals installed that allow external bonding," doubling the rate to 128 Kbits/s.

ARINC’s SKYLink entered the market last year, providing voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), e-mail, virtual private networks and fax services, according to Bill Kolb, program manager. The forward-link data rate–from the ground to the satellite and then to the aircraft–is 3.5 Mbits/s. Although bandwidth is shared between aircraft using the service, each aircraft is guaranteed at least 512 Kbits/s. The return link–from the aircraft to the satellite and down to the ground–is a guaranteed 128 Kbits/s. ARINC currently provides U.S. and European coverage, but North Atlantic coverage is planned.

Until March 2006, SKYLink was factory-installed only by Gulfstream, which brands the service as Broadband Multi-Link (BBML). ARINC provides the avionics, except for the cabin server, which Gulfstream supplies. Approximately 30 percent of all new G450, G500 and G550 aircraft coming off the line are being equipped with SKYLink, says Bob Thompson, senior director, satellite services. ARINC now is talking to other airframers. It has distribution agreements in place with Midcoast, Duncan, Jet Aviation and Landmark for installation of SKYLink in aftermarket bizjets.

Competition is on the way, however. Collins, in partnership with Connexion, plans to introduce its eXchange system in the third quarter of 2006. The new entry is a version of Connexion’s Ku-band commercial airliner broadband service tailored for smaller jets. At the same time Inmarsat’s Swift Broadband, an extension of its BGAN land-based service, awaits commercial launch in mid-2007.

Collins’ broadband data system–which will integrate with the company’s AirShow 21 cabin electronics system and offer live direct broadcast satellite (DBS) television–is scheduled to debut on two Bombardier Global Express XRS business jets operated by Samsung Techwin, as well as on a Bombardier Global 5000 demonstrator aircraft. A third, undisclosed customer also has chosen the system for the XRS. (As the launch customer, Bombardier has helped Collins develop and flight test the package.)

"People put these systems on for a reason," says Ed Laase, director of CBB’s government and executive programs. "We’re seeing receive speeds [to the aircraft] of up to 5 Mbits/s," the same as for the commercial fleet. From the aircraft, the eXchange system can achieve 256 Kbits/s, compared with a maximum of 1 Mbit/s on a commercial aircraft. But because there are fewer users on board bizjets, Boeing expects the individual quality of service will be equal or better than that received on commercial aircraft.

The higher "receive rate" is valuable, Rayl says, because customers want to be able to connect through their firewall to the home office and retrieve e-mail and important files. "At 5 Mbits/s of connection, you can get your files pretty quickly," he maintains. Being able to search the Web is another desired feature, he adds.

Collins and CBB say the system will be the first to offer bizjets live television while flying over oceanic regions. In the DBS TV mode, eXchange will offer multichannel TV viewing over the United States, Europe and Middle East. If it is used as a data system, it provides four channels of IP-based news, weather and sports through agreements with providers such as BBC World, MSNBC and EuroNews. Additional features are being devised, including VOIP. "You can use a wi-fi handset and talk over the Internet," Rayl explains.

ARINC, which already offers VOIP, is looking at a bigger, fuselage-mounted antenna able to support up to 5 Mbits/s to the aircraft and 256 Kbits/s down, Thompson says. IP-based TV also is planned.

For the immediate future, however, eXchange will offer faster speeds and a larger coverage area, compared with SKYLink, Collins stresses. And it will be the first with DBS live television.

Flight Tests

The eXchange system has undergone a series of evaluation flights on a Global 5000 test aircraft, and in February received a license from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Bombardier, which also has conducted integration work with satcom antenna provider EMS Technologies, expects certification of the system later this year on its demonstration aircraft and then on the two Samsung aircraft.

"We have follow-on tests coming up to finish the validation, leading to the goal of an STC [supplemental type certificate] in the second or third quarter of this year," Bouliane says. "We expect to be operational when we receive the STC." He points out that working with Collins, and through them with CBB, allows the use of an infrastructure that’s already serving a number of airlines. "We don’t have to test the service per se, or the procedures to use the service." That reduces risk, Bouliane says, and as demand from the airlines increases, new coverage areas are added. "When you enter the airlines into the mix, you get a much more attractive package and more flexibility to expand into other areas."

The main difference between eXchange and the commercial airline product is a smaller antenna, which provides slightly less performance, Laase explains. CBB’s commercial airliner service uses an antenna that is 0.6 meter (1.9 feet) wide, while the eXchange bizjet antenna is 0.3 meter (1 foot) wide."Business aviation aircraft are only going to have a few people, five or 10 at most, using the service at the same time–that’s the fundamental difference," he says. "But we pretty much offer the same quality of service to the biz-av market that we bring to the commercial sector."

The Ku-band network uses leased transponders from satellite service providers worldwide. The ground stations that "talk to" the satellites also are leased and are connected by land lines to Connexion’s network operations center in Seattle, which monitors performance in all the jets operating with the service. Connexion also maintains an around-the-clock customer care hotline where any discrepancies can be reported.

CBB offers "a seamless network," Laase says. "So if you were to take off from Orange County, Calif., and fly to Ryad [Saudi Arabia], when you went from one continent to another, the handoff between the satellite ground stations would be handled automatically."

Honeywell also offers live satellite television for bizjets both in the United States and over oceans. Its One View-AIS 2000 service uses a separate antenna from its satcom system. The operator chooses which satellites to receive content from. The company also provides a Jet Map II product which provides weather, news, stocks and sports scores.

Swift Broadband

The upcoming Swift Broadband service promises up to 432 Kbits/s to and from the airplane, vs. eXchange’s 5 Mbits/s up and 256 Kbits/s down. But Inmarsat expects customers generally will use two channels of Swift Broadband, approximately doubling throughput. "On top of that we’ll run data compression algorithms," predicts Mark Hoskins, commercial program manager of Swift Broadband. Some Swift64 suppliers already offer up to 4X compression, he says. Hoskins asserts that the throughput will be "absolutely comparable" to the Ku-band solution. And unlike Swift64, Swift Broadband will be IP-based.

Ku-band services tend to be quite "asymmetric" in bandwidth, Hoskins adds, which may not be ideal for military users. For example, the Australian customs service, which uses Swift64 for live video border surveillance, has far more traffic going from air to ground than vice versa.

Commercial service is set for mid-2007, but proof-of-concept terminals will be available earlier to potential military users. Features will include e-mail, Internet and virtual private networks, VOIP, fax and support for cell phones. Inmarsat expects to launch its third I-4 satellite by the end of 2007, which will add coverage over the Pacific Ocean.

Coverage Choices

Bombardier says that on its new XRS, current HSD systems are provisioned to go to Ku-band or Swift Broadband when the service is activated. "While eXchange has fairly good coverage, it is still not worldwide coverage," says Bouliane. "Swift64, eventually [upgraded to] Swift Broadband, might offer global coverage over some of the land masses or water areas that are not covered by eXchange," he adds. (Coverage is the inverse of the data rate, he explains. Swift64 offers the greatest coverage but lowest data rate, while Ku-band has the highest bandwidth but less coverage.)

So which offering should a customer choose? "Our system has a much higher data rate in the satellite-to-airplane direction than we do in the airplane-to-satellite direction," Laase says. "That’s probably the biggest difference [between eXchange and Swift Broadband]." Laase, however, indicates that experience gathered from commercial airliner service shows that people receive about eight times more information on the airplane than they send off of it.

Antenna size has been a limiting factor vis-a-vis broadband for smaller bizjets. "In the past, [broadband] has been restricted to those airplanes that could accommodate [tail-mounted] antennas–fairly large aircraft," Rayl says. "What changed is that antenna manufacturers have come out with high-gain, low-profile, phased array antennas that mount on the fuselage. So now, if you have some space on top of the aircraft, you can use a phased array instead of a mechanically steered antenna." These systems will be showing up on Challengers and smaller Dassault Falcons, he adds.

The new antennas work with Collins’ HSD products tailored to Swift services, Rayl says, and meet ARINC satcom standards. For eXchange broadband, however, a tail-mounted, mechanically steered antenna is required. Bombardier plans to use a phased array antenna for Inmarsat communications, although it "doesn’t fit on, say, a Learjet 40," Bouliane says. A blade antenna offered by EMS Technologies could work with Swift Broadband, he says, although it would not provide the full bandwidth capability: the rate could drop to 280-300 Kbits/s.

For smaller jets Honeywell offers a lower-cost alternative to broadband called Airsat II, which is linked to the Iridium constellation and optimized for voice communications. Data rates are considerably slower than Swift64 (about 2.4 Kbit/s) but are adequate for voice and some stored messaging, McDonald says. "We are always looking for ways to get the equipment smaller, looking for smaller antennas with the same amount of gain."

Onboard Cell Phones

In-flight cell phone service currently is not allowed in either commercial airliners or business aircraft, although Honeywell, which is concentrating on the corporate jet market, predicts an FCC ruling on licensing by the end of 2006. Under an experimental license, the company has been flight testing GSM technology, the widely used cell phone standard, for nearly a year on one of its corporate jets.

Honeywell feels it has solved interference problems and that the corporate market will lead the way for approval of in-flight cell phones. "The solution for bizjets will move ahead, but the airline market will take a little longer to shake out," predicts Eric Olson, Honeywell’s product marketing manager for cabin systems. He says other wireless products–BlackBerrys and SMS (short message service)–will win earlier approval.

Olson feels some of the issues with cell phone use are ethical, and not technical. The possibility of annoying other passengers on long-haul flights is a key factor for airlines. "Our product, although it will apply to the airline market, is targeted at the bizjet market where we don’t have to worry about that."

Honeywell’s system is an add-on to the communications already installed on the aircraft and makes use of an onboard wireless base station called a pico cell, a small antenna that sets up a cell spot on the plane. The pico cell keeps phones from interfering with aircraft systems or the ground cellular network by directing each phone to adjust to its lowest possible power level, according to Honeywell. "So when you are flying on an airplane, the cellular network thinks of you as roaming someplace," Olson says. "When I call you, I don’t need to know what airplane you are on. I can call your cell phone number directly and it will ring your phone."

While the cell phone system will work with any air-to-ground communications system on the plane, the difference is in the number of simultaneous calls that can be made and the price of the calls, Olson says. The low-cost Iridium system allows one call per channel. The higher-bandwidth systems, like Swift64, put more simultaneous calls on the same link. With high-speed data (HSD) the system allows seven simultaneous cell phone calls.

Inmarsat’s Swift Broadband architecture also supports the use of personal cell phones. Early entry Class 3A equipment will be available to OnAir, for example, which plans to address the European market for onboard GSM cell phones on short-haul aircraft. Swift Broadband potentially could support as many as 30 simultaneous calls (October 2005, page 36).

For fractional operators who don’t want to pay for people to use the system, the entire cost of the call will show up on the individual’s cell phone bill. "For some companies, the [corporate] flight department pays for all communications costs on the aircraft. For other flight departments that don’t pay that cost, it can go directly to the user," Olson explains. On top of the Iridium or other satcom cost, there will be a typical cell phone roaming rider. With a BlackBerry or short text message, the charge for each message is worked out by the service provider, he adds.

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