Business & GA

Office In the Sky

By Emily Feliz | August 1, 2008
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Once seen as optional capabilities, access to the Internet, e-mail, corporate Virtual Private Networks (VPN), telephone, fax and other office amenities increasingly are considered must-have features for business aircraft, easily turning the bizjet cabin into a satellite office.

Indeed, executives aboard business aircraft now expect the same business tools and data speeds on their aircraft that they have come to expect in their offices. And after some failures to bring connectivity to the cabin, notably the ill-fated Connexion by Boeing service, communications providers think they’ve found a business model and pricing system that works.

While in-flight, broadband connectivity in the commercial air-transport market is in the trial stages, business aviation passengers have been enjoying these services for a few years now. Following a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) frequency auction in 2006 and the imminent entry into service of new satellites, capabilities enabling the use of personal devices such as Blackberries, SmartPhones and GSM phones will increase as more operators equip their aircraft with sophisticated satellite communications systems built for higher data rates and greater efficiency. And as new communications devices emerge, OEMs, airframers and service providers are rushing to get those capabilities on the airplane.

"The expectation nowadays is that a person can send and receive e-mails and texts anywhere in his home, in his office, in his car. And the expectation is — why can’t we do this on an airplane? It’s almost become second nature to use these devices virtually anywhere here in the U.S. and really this is the next step," said Steve Irwin, director of sales, commercial, with Chelton Satcom.

Chelton, a Cobham plc subsidiary based in Lewisville, Texas, manufactures satcom system components including antennas, satellite data units, high-power amplifiers, beam steering units and satellite reference units. The company says it offers the lightest, most compact solutions for Inmarsat’s new SwiftBroadband service to the business aviation market. One such offering, supporting two simultaneous SwiftBroadband channels, comprises two boxes, each 2 MCU in size, and weighing less than 20 pounds total.

In the next 18 to 24 months, "it’s going to be as unusual for someone to get on an airline and not have broadband service as it is to go into a hotel and not have a TV set. It’s going to happen everywhere. And not surprisingly, it’s going to happen at about the same rate if not faster in business aviation because this is the area where people will want those productivity tools," said Jack W. Blumenstein, president and CEO of in-flight telephony provider Aircell.

Growth Market

Suppliers to the business aviation market say the current environment for in-flight communications makes it ripe for major growth in the coming months. That growth is benefiting from lessons learned after the failure of Connexion by Boeing in 2006, the widespread adoption of Blackberry and Wi-Fi-enabled devices and the anticipated launch this year of the third Inmarsat I-4 satellite, making available mobile broadband coverage everywhere except the extreme polar regions.

"What’s changed behaviors a lot is Blackberry," said Andrew Mohr, director of marketing for cabin systems at Rockwell Collins. "... That has exponentially increased the desire for people to stay connected. Simultaneously, Blackberries do not require the full bandwidth of, say, Web or Internet access to have good performance. What’s happened is everybody’s got a Blackberry and Blackberries don’t require as much bandwidth, so it’s a great convergence that has really helped the connectivity market take off."

Rockwell Collins had partnered with Boeing to manage the airborne system installation, vendor relations and customer-facing activities of the Connexion service. Last year, the company acquired the broadband terminal product line of ARINC’s competing SKYLink offering. SKYLink, a Ku-band service introduced in April 2005, provides in-flight Internet, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and other capabilities for large business jets.

Under terms of the agreement, announced in June 2007 and concluded last December, Rockwell Collins now sells and supports the airborne broadband hardware, rebranded as the "eXchange" system. ViaSat, of Carlsbad, Calif., which developed the SKYLink terminal, continues to manufacture the hardware and provide gateway and network operations services. ARINC provides the network service.

The Rockwell Collins eXchange system with ARINC SKYLink service was installed on about 75 aircraft, with an additional 25 on order, ARINC said. On the aircraft, the system weighs about 42 pounds, including four line replacable units (LRU) and the tail-mounted antenna. Gulfstreams make up the bulk of the aircraft it flies on. However, in May, the eXchange system was installed on a Citation X, Cessna’s largest airframe.

"Customers love the system," declared Robert Thompson, ARINC senior director of satellite systems. "It provides 256 kilobits off the airplane and 3.5 Mbps to the airplane. You take a standard Gulfstream, with six or eight executives on there — they can download 10 MG files and surf the Internet and do whatever they do. It’s just like sitting in your office, it truly is."

Other features of the eXchange system include data capability on Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones, soft hand-offs to L-band satcom and video conferencing over Internet. The system also integrates with Rockwell Collins’ "Venue" cabin management system.

Honeywell in May announced the availability of in-flight messaging via Wi-Fi-enabled Blackberries, part of its "OneLink" satcom services menu. Tim Roberts, Honeywell manager of technical sales, said the company’s satcom solutions provide simultaneous connectivity in the cabin using packet-based Mobile Packet Data Services, resulting in "very low cost, literally pennies for each message" instead of dollars per minute. Passengers also can use the Internet or connect to a VPN on an ISDN telephone line and Swift64 or SwiftBroadband channel.

Honeywell supplies a cabin communications hub, called the Communications Gateway System, supporting in-flight connectivity. The system is comprised of the CG-710 communications gateway unit and a cabin interface unit. "Those two units together provide basically a comprehensive network data router [and] with the required replacement of the MagnaStar system — a full-function IP PBX (telephone network)," Roberts said. "So the phone switching capability along with the data router and Wi-Fi connectivity are built into our comm gateway system. The CG-710 basically acts as a complete or integrated airborne network with multiple Ethernet interfaces, USB and all the normal data-routing capabilities."

The CG-710 communications gateway and Honeywell’s MCS-7120 multi-channel satcom system have been selected as standard equipment on new Dassault Falcon 900, 2000 and 7X business jets. The MCS-7120, supporting voice and Swift64 or SwiftBroadband channels, combines a satellite data unit, high-power amplifier and high-speed data unit in one box.

On aircraft equipped with Honeywell’s Primus Epic integrated avionics suite, the basis for Dassault’s EASy flight deck, the satcom equipment and gateway integrates with the AV-900 digital audio panel in the cockpit, providing pilots with voice and data communications.

"It allows the crews to be able to make calls directly off their boom mike and CDU (control display unit), versus having another piece of equipment and more wiring as well as weight in the cockpit," Roberts said. "All these things kind of wrap together, if you will, and intertwine very nicely." He added that electronic flight bags can receive in-flight updates via Wi-Fi.

Since its launch, ARINC’s SKYLink coverage area has been expanded to include the continental United States, most of Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, Canada, the upper Atlantic Ocean and Europe. It is not "economically feasible" to have global coverage with SKYLink, said Thompson, adding that many operators will also install an Inmarsat receiver for use in areas of the globe where SKYLink does not have coverage.

"We anticipate adding additional regions, and the logical ones for us would be North Pacific and Middle East," Thompson said. "We don’t have a specific timeline, but we’re working toward those two areas. If you look at our current coverage, 75 percent of all business aircraft flights for large business jets take place in that coverage area. We already cover 75 percent of the total flights. So it really becomes sort of a diminishing return equation."

Other airborne broadband partnerships have formed to capture market share. In April, TriaGnoSys, of Wessling, Germany, announced its selection by Thales for the latter company’s new in-flight broadband solution designed for the business and regional jet markets. TriaGnoSys will provide the satcom management and billing processes of the system, which is based on SwiftBroadband.

"This new Internet service significantly widens the in-flight connectivity options for business and regional jet airframe manufacturers, as well as owners and operators," said Axel Jahn, TriaGnoSys managing director. "The competitive costs of buying and installing the equipment, which can be either line- or retro-fitted, and running the service, make it a ‘must-have’ option for business travelers and an important ancillary revenue opportunity for regional airlines."

Enter Aircell

Later this year, Aircell, Louisville, Colo., will launch in-flight broadband connectivity, rolling out two systems, an air-to-ground Aircell Mobile Broadband Network for North America, and an Inmarsat SwiftBroadband network for global coverage. First deliveries are slated for the third quarter.

"Even a year or two ago, the question I got asked most often was, ‘you think anyone will use it?’ And the question I get asked most often today is ‘what took you so long?’" said Blumenstein. "People would love to walk on to an airplane and be able to continue what they’ve been doing outside that airplane with the same devices. In a sense, our mission statement is very simple. It is simply to let people do in the airplane that which they’ve been doing on the ground."

In January, Aircell completed its nationwide Air-To-Ground (ATG) network, which comprises 92 cellular sites. The first site was activated on Aug. 25, 2007 and the final site, which completed the nationwide network, went live Jan. 29. Aircell declared the wireless system up and ready in March.

The SwiftBroadband satcom system, with data speeds of up to 432 Kbps per channel, has coverage across the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia. It will be available on a worldwide basis following the upcoming launch of the third Inmarsat-4 satellite. (Inmarsat in July said the launch of the third I-4 satellite from Baikonur Cosmodrome was scheduled for Aug. 14. The 6-metric-tonne spacecraft is built by EADS Astrium.)

Aircell has partnered with satcom manufacturer Thrane & Thrane, Lyngby, Denmark, which is providing its compact Aero-SB Lite system, using an intermediate-gain antenna, for the service.

"Up until now, there has been Inmarsat Swift64, which a lot of government and heavy business jets have. The core of the business jet market has not been able to afford either the service or the equipment for global Inmarsat coverage," said Bill Peltola, Aircell senior vice president, Business Aviation Solutions. "Now we’ll make global broadband affordable. With the demographics in the bizjet world today, it’s very important to have."

Aircell has been putting the pieces in place for the two systems for seven years, executives say, starting with R&D. In 2006, the company won a FCC spectrum auction for air-to-ground broadband frequencies, allowing it to hold an exclusive license to provide wireless broadband services across North America.

The completion of the cellular ground infrastructure and the upcoming launch of the I-4 satellite mean all the pieces for the systems are in place.

"The problem has been that an office without connectivity makes no sense," Blumenstein said. "You can do all this nice stuff, but if you don’t have a real robust communications link off the aircraft, it doesn’t do a lot for you. I think what’s happened now is that the last piece of the puzzle, which is broadband connectivity, is getting introduced into the equation.

"Up until now," he added, "the only choice most operators had to get off that aircraft was very low speed, good voice, but a low-speed Iridium link. Now you’ll have Iridium, Aircell broadband over North America, SwiftBroadband outside, Iridium everywhere on the globe."

Aircell said the satcom broadband system is designed to be a light, easy-to-install, modular option to its already available Aircell Axxess multi-channel cabin communications system designed for medium-to-large business aircraft.

"Once you’ve got the basic architecture you can go anywhere you want," Peltola said. "If the airplane gets sold you can take one system off of it and put another one in and you don’t have to tear out the core stuff that’s in the cabin."

The network also powers "Gogo," Aircell’s in-flight Internet service for airline passengers. Gogo will launch later this year on select American Airlines routes.

"With what we see coming in air-to-ground technology, the day is coming very soon when you’ll be sitting on an airplane, business or commercial, with your laptop or any device you want and you can be looking at live TV, streaming radio, bringing up movies on demand, and virtually unlimited bandwidth to do that," Blumenstein said.

Future Needs

For the long-term, broadband systems must be scalable, allowing for the integration of various media, such as video conferencing, providers say. "As we see the future, everything kind of needs to be connected because new applications are coming out and there are new expectations being raised by everything being hooked up or data-enabled," Mohr said.

EMS Satcom, Ottawa, Canada, made its eNfusion Broadband system scalable, allowing for the addition of new capabilities with relatively minor tweaks. It added Blackberry to its system last year.

The eNfusion Broadband solution is an Inmarsat-based system that enables cabin telephony, Internet, VPN, e-mail, Blackberry, video and secure networking. The system includes a high-speed terminal and antenna, and an optional cabin gateway.

"When we added the Blackberries, it was just a minor change to our configuration file to the CNX" Cabin Gateway, said Stephen Newell, EMS Satcom vice president of satcom sales. "It was just a question of how do we preference the CNX to let it know that a Blackberry has come on board and needs to talk to it. A lot of CEOs have started adopting mobile Internet devices like a Blackberry and an iPhone and what not. They’re going to start demanding that they can use them as-is on the plane. Right now, we’re giving them the capability to do that."

In order to appeal to a wider range of aircraft, EMS Satcom in May released new SwiftBroadband equipment bundles, called eNfusion System 6 and System 7.

System 6, which is designed to address Class 6 SwiftBroadband service, includes the HSD-467 high-speed data terminal, an AMT-3800 high-gain antenna and the CCU-200 Communications Convergence Unit. System 7, which is for Class 7 SwiftBroadband service, includes the eNfusion HSD-467, the AMT-3500 intermediate-gain antenna, and the CCU-200.

System 6 supplies data at rates between 200 and 300 kilobits per second; System 7 is capable of data downloads between 100 and 200 kbps.

"Up until now all of these systems have been made for what I would call the ‘heavy iron,’" said Newell. "About the smallest aircraft that would typically receive an Inmarsat satcom solution would be Citation X, Challenger 604, Gulfstream 405 and Dassault Falcon 900. Aircraft smaller than that didn’t even have it as an option at all just because the cost made it unaffordable."

Last year, EMS Satcom became the first company to receive Inmarsat SwiftBroadband approval for its HSD-400 terminal, a progression of its Swift64 product with upgraded software.

Airborne Cell Phone Adoption — Or Not

Despite interest in the commercial aviation market, cell phone capability on a business aircraft isn’t likely to gain widespread adoption, due to service concerns, ambient noise and the availability of better, more reliable systems, some providers say.

"If you own a big business jet, having cell phones onboard really doesn’t do anything other than — you get to have your cell phone onboard. It really doesn’t improve the quality of the call, it doesn’t improve the cost structure," said Stephen Newell, EMS Satcom vice president of satcom sales.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission and FAA prohibit passengers from using cell phones in-flight, citing concerns over interference with navigation systems. As such, picocells — the technology that supports cellular service on an aircraft — are illegal here. In Europe, however, the landscape is different. Picocells are legal and social and regulatory hurdles are less cumbersome. Several in-flight phone systems using picocell technology are undergoing trials in Europe.

For the business jet market, providers say Voice over IP (VoIP) phones and other in-seat telephony are better options for many, citing clearer reception and better service. Plus, the proliferation of Blackberries and Wi-Fi-enabled devices are a more popular way to keep in contact, they say.

"The thing that has struck me since I’ve become more and more aware of this is how much of our communication in life doesn’t involve voice anymore," said Aircell CEO said Jack W. Blumenstein.

"Voice may come, but I don’t expect it to come soon and I’m frankly indifferent as to when it happens." — Emily Feliz

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