Business & GA, Commercial

Satcom Solutions

By Bernard Fitzsimons | September 1, 2008
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The aeronautical satellite communications field, long dominated by Inmarsat, has seen Iridium grow at a rapid rate to become the most widely used network. But the race to restore the Ku-band connectivity once offered to airlines by Boeing’s Connexion service is still some way from the finish line.

The attraction of the 10.7-14.5 GHz Ku-band is, of course, the higher bandwidth it offers compared with the 1.5-1.7 GHz L-band used by Inmarsat, and the consequent potential for enhanced in-flight entertainment (IFE) options. IFE major Panasonic Avionics Corp., which has been working toward Ku-band provision since the demise of Connexion in 2006, says its eXConnect service will offer data rates "comparable to ground public WiFi hotspots."

Services it will support include virtual private network (VPN), live TV, shopping, streaming media and telemedicine, along with operational applications.

Panasonic Avionics has opted to use satellite operator Intelsat’s GlobalConnex network as the space segment of eXConnect and a satellite modem licensed from iDirect Technology, of Herndon, Va. In July, iDirect and Panasonic Avionics announced an agreement whereby Panasonic will license iDirect’s satellite IP router technology as a core component of eXConnect.

"The core capabilities for in-flight broadband have existed for years, but until recently they were far too inefficient and costly for airlines to operate profitably," said David Bettinger, chief technology officer of iDirect.

Panasonic Avionics also selected the MIJET antenna from Israel’s Starling Advanced Technology, but has since sought performance enhancements and said the choice of antenna supplier was still open. Initial user fee targets on international flights were $11 per hour or $22 per flight.

In February, Starling signed an agreement with the Defense & Space Systems division of EMS Technologies, of Norcross, Ga., whose antennas are used by JetBlue and other airlines to receive LiveTV broadcasts, to develop a new Ku-band antenna for the U.S. airline market. Weighing 45 pounds and measuring 30 inches in diameter and six inches high, the antenna is designed to combine very high data rates with ease of installation aboard both wide- and narrow-body aircraft.

"The agreement reflects the increasing demand in the United States for reliable and cost-effective airborne broadband antenna systems for airlines," said Micha Lawrence, founder and CEO of Starling.

That demand in the United States is prompting several companies to develop their own airborne satcom systems.

Row 44, of Westlake Village, Calif., says its system will provide downlink data rates averaging 30 Mbps, with a maximum of 620 Kbps in the uplink direction. The system will support full Internet access, VoIP and cell phone roaming, plus live Internet protocol TV. The enabling equipment is designed to weigh less than 150 pounds and be installed in two overnights, with the aircraft back in service on the day in between. The vendor had lined up a single-aircraft trial with Alaska Airlines and a four-aircraft evaluation with Southwest Airlines.

AeroSat, of Amherst, N.H., is developing the antenna and high-power amplifier (HPA). Mounted above the ceiling liner inside the pressure hull and connected to the antenna via two coaxial cables, the HPA amplifies the transmit RF signal emanating from a modem data unit (MDU), up-converting the 950-1450 MHz intermediate frequency (IF) signal to the 14.0-14.50 GHz RF signal, and delivers inbound data to the MDU in IF frequencies of 850-1000 MHz.

Two other boxes are collocated with the HPA. A server management unit (SMU) switches Ethernet data from peripherals in the aircraft cabin to a set of off-board transceivers, and an antenna control unit uses position and movement data received via an aircraft interface to point the antenna at the appropriate satellite. AP Labs, of San Diego, which is supplying the MDU and SMU, started certification testing in January.

The final element of the system is one or more cabin wireless LAN units to provide the 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi environment. Row 44 says the system can also be integrated with wireless or seat-back IFE systems that support Internet browsing.

A newer company in the field, QEST Quantenelektronische Systeme GmbH, of Holzgerlingen, Germany, unveiled a combined Ku-/L-band antenna in 2007. Intended to use the higher data rate medium for data to the aircraft and the L-band for return traffic, it weighs 33 pounds in fuselage mount configuration and 22 pounds in tail-mounted form.

Satellite service providers have yet to implement the processing of mixed band signals, however, so QEST, a company of the automotive Draxlmaier Group, has followed up with a bi-directional Ku-band design intended for near-term applications. Both use a cryoelectronic ultra-low noise amplifier.

"As all QEST antennas are based on a modular concept, the realization will be easier and faster than it typically would be for a new design," said QEST chief technology officer Jörg Oppenländer. "This will also ease the adaptation of the antennas to the requirements of different satellite operators and system providers."

The other current supplier of aeronautical Ku-band antennas is ViaSat, of Carlsbad, Calif., whose hardware, including "ArcLight" spread spectrum modems, is used for the business jet-oriented SKYLink service that ARINC Direct launched in 2006.

By June, 75 aircraft had been commissioned to use SKYLink, whose coverage extends from North America across the North Atlantic to Europe and south to the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America.

Last year, Rockwell Collins, which used SKYLink to replace the Connexion by Boeing service it had offered to business jet operators under the eXchange brand, acquired the SKYLink product line and now markets it as "eXchange with service by SKYLink." Aimed primarily at large cabin business jets such as the Gulfstream G550, Dassault Falcon 7X and Bombardier Global Express, it has also been installed on at least one Cessna Citation X.

The SKYLink service transmits data to the aircraft at up to 3.5 Megabit/sec and offers e-mail plus corporate intranet and Internet access, with options for global voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephony and videoconferencing.

In June, ARINC reported up to 50 aircraft were logging on simultaneously in North America, five-to-10 during the business day in Europe and more than 50 each month on the North Atlantic.

"The real value [of the system] comes if you’re using it over time, and if you’re a high bandwidth user, you’re going to save money," commented Andrew Mohr, Rockwell Collins director of cabin systems marketing.

Inmarsat Broadband

Like its rival SITA’s AIRCOM service, ARINC’s GLOBALink air transport service has been used with successive Inmarsat offerings — Classic, the 64 kbit/sec Swift64 and now the 432 kbit/sec SwiftBroadband — as the satcom element.

Inmarsat is currently deploying its fourth generation of satellites. Two I-4 satellites were in service and a third was scheduled to launch in August. The satcom provider last year ordered an additional, higher-capacity Alphasat I-XL satellite from EADS Astrium to augment its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service.

SwiftBroadband is the medium for a new cell phone service from the SITA/Airbus joint venture, OnAir, and ARINC/Telenor’s AeroMobile service. Both use Inmarsat as the link between aircraft and ground, with on-board pico cells to control cell phone power levels. AeroMobile customers Emirates Airline and Qantas have both committed to fleetwide fits, and the company also has announced programs with Saudia, Turkish Airlines and three other carriers.

OnAir has been trialed by Air France, with further evaluations scheduled by bmi and TAP Portugal. Also, as of June, it was nearing a service launch with Ryanair. It also has contracts with AirAsia, AirAsia X, Jazeera Airlines, Kingfisher Airlines, Oman Air, Royal Jordanian, Shenzhen Airlines and an unnamed European low-fare operator.

The introduction of cell phone services has provoked much controversy. In the United States, the use of cell phones on board an aircraft is prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission and FAA. The reality, though, is turning out to be less fraught with problems than critics had predicted.

Emirates, long the most consistent supporter of Inmarsat-based on-board telephony, continues to see more than 6,000 calls a month on that system.

Beginning in April, when it launched the AeroMobile service commercially, the airline had "no complaints or incidents," said Patrick Brannelly, Emirates vice president of passenger communications and IFE, speaking at the Inmarsat user conference in June.

Passengers on the inaugural flight "just switched on their phones and got on with it," Brannelly said.

There has been no sign of the predicted air rage, and Brannelly said he did not expect many long conversations taking place at international roaming rates. The longest call on the first flight was 4.5 minutes, and on a typical A340-500 flight, the average is 2.5 minutes. There have been twice as many incoming as outgoing calls, and four times as many text messages as voice calls.

Emirates, which plans to equip its entire fleet by the end of next year, has "not scratched the surface yet in terms of what we can do with these services," Brannelly added.

He said he expects GPRS-capable devices such as the BlackBerry, for which support will be offered by the end of the year, to kill off other approaches to data communications, and promised "a lot of clever things when we have a full fleet fit."

Resurgent Iridium

Iridium Satellite, based in Bethesda, Md., has steadily grown its aeronautical user base since it started offering mobile communications in 2001.

The number of subscribers has grown annually by more than 50 percent over the last five years, and both ARINC and SITA now offer Iridium satcom services. Iridium said it experienced 51 percent growth in total installed aviation units in the first quarter of 2008 compared to the prior-year period. To date, 17,400 aircraft have Iridium installed.

ARINC launched data and voice services in 2006, and this year SITA added an option for aircraft to use Iridium as a medium for ACARS.

In January, ICAO approved Standards and Recommended Practices permitting Iridium Satellite to provide Aeronautical Mobile Satellite (Route) Services for commercial aircraft on transoceanic flights. Several operators whose aircraft fly at high latitudes where they are beyond the reach of geostationary satellites already use Iridium for cockpit communications, and the company expects the new application to spur further installations.

The attraction of Iridium, with its relatively modest data rates of 1.2 or 2.4 kbit/sec, is the lower cost of the avionics needed to communicate with the constellation’s low Earth orbit satellites. The shorter distances over which signals must travel means there is no need for high-gain antennas and high-power amplifiers.

"In the air transport industry, the big push right now is looking at Iridium as the short-term solution for communication facilities to support FANS, CPDLC, ATN services... to permit closer separation minimums on the congested routes," said Armin Jabs, president of International Communications Group (ICG), of Newport News, Va.

"Essentially, Iridium right now is at the forefront that air transport customers are looking at for installations," Jabs said.

Both ARINC Direct’s data service and the GLOBALink voice and data services use avionics from ICG.

By the time SITA revealed the addition of Iridium service to a User Group meeting in May this year, three airlines had already signed up to use the service.

SITA’s rationale is to extend the reach of the existing VHF ACARS and to enable operators who are flying single-aisle Airbus and Boeing aircraft on routes that may take them out of VHF coverage to access the AIRCOM service via the Iridium network.

"We are swiftly gaining market share and establishing Iridium services as the industry’s gold standard," said Don Thoma, vice president of marketing for Iridium.

The avionics also support two-way voice communications that are of much better quality than HF radio, according to SITA. And the fact that Iridium’s coverage extends over the poles where the geostationary satellites deployed by Inmarsat and Intelsat are inaccessible makes the medium attractive to long-haul aircraft as well.

By May, Thoma said there were no fewer than 16,000 Iridium units installed. In the first quarter of 2008, the number of installed terminals had grown more than 50 percent since the equivalent period last year, while airtime usage for voice and circuit-switched data was up 46 percent and short-burst data traffic grew 77 percent, according to Iridium.

Miami-based Avionica’s "satLINK" equipment was the first to be approved by SITA. The system is installed on Boeing 737, 757 and 767 aircraft, including Continental Airlines 737-800s.

In March, Avionica announced that Continental had accomplished the first-ever ACARS communications in regular commercial service over the Iridium network. The connection took place between a satLINK-equipped 737-800 flying over the Pacific Ocean and Continental’s headquarters in Houston.

In late July, EMS Technologies announced plans to spend $15.5 million to acquire Sky Connect, of Takoma Park, Md., a provider of satellite-based tracking, text messaging and telephone systems for airborne, ground-based and marine applications. The transaction was aimed at enabling EMS Technologies to build an Iridium services-based business for the commercial and military aviation markets. "Acquiring Sky Connect complements EMS’s aero-connectivity strategy by adding Iridium hardware and services business targeting the growing general aviation market," said EMS Technologies’ President and CEO Paul Domorski.

Several other companies provide Iridium service to the general aviation market, usually in conjunction with proprietary avionics.

Aircell, Louisville, Colo., which developed a terrestrial broadband service that American Airlines is set to trial, offers the Iridium-based Axxess service. Later this year, Aircell is due to introduce a SwiftBroadband option using the Aero-SB Lite system being developed in partnership with Denmark’s Thrane & Thrane.

Iridium E-mail Server Launch

International Communications Group (ICG) is rolling out an Iridium-based global data system, which will allow users to access Wi-Fi-enabled handheld devices, such as Blackberries and iPhones, for e-mail and text messaging services.

ICG, Newport News, Va., said the system, called “NxtMail,” will expand Iridium services to include office-type capabilities. The system will also allow satcom products to be installed on a wider range of aircraft. The NxtMail server box, which weighs three pounds, is connected to an ICG dual-channel Iridium transceiver.

Production of the system was set to begin in September.

“Frankly we believe this is going to be a big deal in the industry,” said ICG President Armin Jabs. “We think this is going to be huge... for the smaller jets that can’t put an Inmarsat broadband service on board.

“With the NxtMail service, you have a... standalone office. You can use your Blackberry and you don’t know any difference between your normal Blackberry use, whether it’s in your car, your office or an airplane, as long as it’s Wi-Fi capable.”

ICG said NxtMail will support Web capabilities, but at a much slower rate than the broadband speeds promised by Inmarsat systems. “From what we’re seeing, people are really looking for e-mail through personal devices as opposed to a big pipe to do Web surfing or huge data transfers,” Jabs said.

“I don’t know if the Swiftbroadband is enough of an incentive to put Inmarsat terminals on. Because if you can do ACARS, datalink services, flight-deck datalink services, and you can do global e-mail and you can do several voice channels, what do you have in an Inmarsat terminal that would justify the additional expense, the maintenance costs, the extra fuel costs for the extra weight?

“The only difference is the higher bandwidth for Web surfing,” Jabs contended. —Emily Feliz

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