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Must fly - I have a meeting in the office...

Posted 19 June 2017 · Add Comment

Middle East business aviation users, who have been putting off investing in in-flight connectivity systems, don't have to wait any longer, thanks to a number of recent innovations. Steve Nichols reports.

Users looking for an in-flight connectivity system that will give them an “office in the air” experience now have a few to choose from.

First up is Inmarsat’s Jet ConneX (JX) system for business aviation that uses three Ka-band Global Xpress I-5 satellites. The system, which was due to enter commercial service introduction at NBAA in Orlando, covers the globe up to about 80-85 degrees latitude.

It enables HDTV live streaming, advanced in-flight entertainment (IFE) and office features, voice over internet protocol (VOIP) telephony, virtual private network (VPN), high definition (HD) video conferencing, high-speed internet, social media and any internet-accessible applications.

Mark van Berkel, president and chief executive officer of MEBAA member TrueNorth Avionics, says his company is already getting a lot of enquiries about JX.

The company, which specialises in VVIP and head-of-state (HoS) aircraft in the region, such as the Airbus ACJ and Boeing BBJ, says its customers want a seamless connectivity experience and demand the very best.

“From personalised, gold- or platinum-plated TrueNorth handsets to the fastest available bandwidth, our customers require a high-quality service. We’ve been involved in integrating JX from the outset and have been talking to our customers about what it can offer,” he said.
Honeywell has been developing two JetWave antennas for the JX system.

The first – the MCS-8200 – is a fuselage-mounted antenna suitable for commercial airliners and VVIP aircraft. This can theoretically deliver maximum data rates up to 30-50Mbps.

Honeywell’s smaller antenna is a tail-mounted parabolic dish – the MCS-8000 – that is better suited to smaller business jets.

You can buy a Jet ConneX data package that specifies a “maximum information rate” (MIR) as well as a “committed information rate” (CIR), which is the guaranteed minimum data rate per subscription level.

Guaranteeing a minimum information rate ensures that your service will always perform to at least that level. The current MIR is limited to 15Mbps – this is still more than 30 times faster than Inmarsat SwiftBroadband – but the company has hinted that it may increase the speeds beyond 15Mbps once the service is established.

Kymeta is also developing a flat-panel antenna for JX called the mTenna that would suit smaller business aircraft. This is a novel design using futuristic thin film transistors, although we may not see the mTenna commercially available until at least mid 2017 and possibly 2018.

A number of other suppliers are looking at supplying JX for users in the Middle East.

Stephan Egli, SITAONAIR’s chief commercial officer, said: “The service is going to be very popular for users wanting global connectivity with high bandwidth.”

The company is no stranger to users in the region, especially with its existing Inmarsat L-band SwiftBroadband systems.

“We are flying on many HoS aircraft, including Airbus ACJs, A330s and A340s, Boeing 767s and BBJs,” said Egli. “However, not many people know about it due to our very sensitive non-disclosure agreements.

“Comlux also has us flying with SwiftBroadband on two Airbus A320s and a Boeing 767.”

Kurt Weidemeyer, Inmarsat’s VP strategy and business, said: “A lot of our partners are working on supplemental type certificate (STC) programmes for a wide range of platforms and we want to get them on the JX network.”

GDC Group is developing an STC for the installation of the Honeywell’s Ka-Band JetWave hardware on different Boeing and Airbus aircraft, including the Boeing Business Jet, Airbus Corporate Jet and commercial configurations.

Derek Donahue, Satcom Direct’s regional director for Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, (EEMEA), said that it has aircraft due to deliver with JX. “We have had a JX-equipped Airbus A320 going to a customer, plus we are working on a Boeing 747 and an Airbus A330.

“Our customers are craving more bandwidth and JX will deliver,” Donahue added.

“We are also working on a Boeing 777 that will be equipped with three systems – Inmarsat JX, SwiftBroadband and ViaSat Yonder Ku.

“There is still a lot of interest in Ku-band connectivity, especially among customers who can’t fit JX to their aircraft type.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Inmarsat’s Jet ConneX is the only high-speed Ka-band solution available. But you’d be wrong.
ViaSat also has its Ka-band ‘Exede in the Air’ service.

James Person, ViaSat’s director, global business development, general aviation, said: “Our Yonder Ku-band service for business jets has been around for more than a decade and its 1.5-2Mbps connection speed has been good enough for e-mails and web surfing while airborne, but people want more now.

“They want to be able to do everything in the air that they can do on the ground. With our ViaSat ‘Exede in the Air’ Ka-band service and its smaller dish they can get now a multi-megabit experience.”

The Middle East is just on the edge of the KA-SAT coverage and, while Europe is well served, the satellite footprint is patchy over parts of Saudi Arabia, plus any areas south and east from there.

“We intend to roll-out further Ka-band coverage over time, just as cell phone operators expand their coverage,” Person said.

ViaSat’s Ku-band Yonder service also sells well in the Middle East, delivering megabit speeds to a small antenna.

Looking further ahead, when ViaSat adds the ViaSat-3 constellation it will eventually bring three terabits globally from around 2020.

Person said: “Each of the three Ka-band ViaSat-3 satellites will bring 1,000Gbps of new capacity to the market. There has been exponential, not linear, growth in the mobile data market and we aim to supply that demand.”

Users who have been put off by the alleged lower bandwidth available via Ku are also in for a treat.

So-called high throughout Ku-band satellites (HTS), such as Intelsat’s EpicNG range, are being introduced, which use more powerful spot beams to boost data speeds.

Intelsat-29e is now in orbit and there are more HTS Ku-band satellites in the pipeline.

Intelsat says its new EpicNG high throughput satellite (HTS) Ku-band platform is delivering a 165% to 330% increase in spectral efficiency with ground platforms and modem technologies.

It is also giving up to 300% improvement in throughput when using next-generation antenna technology.

This has caught the attention of providers like Panasonic Avionics, which has partnered with Astronics to provide a new Ku-band in-flight internet and TV connectivity solution to VVIP and HoS customers.

Gogo Business Aviation is also keen to point out that its 2Ku solution is available. The company has deployed 2Ku on commercial aircraft, delivering speeds up to 100Mbps per aircraft.

2Ku is now installed on more than 200 aircraft with a backlog of more than 1,500 across its commercial airlines partners.

Overall, Gogo connectivity solutions are now installed on more than 7,000 business aircraft and 3,000 commercial aircraft worldwide.  

Pascale Barhouche, Gogo’s regional sales manager based in Dubai, said: “In the business aviation space many VVIP customers fly aircraft large enough to accommodate the 2Ku antenna, and most of those customers are based in the Middle East.

“So 2Ku is a viable option for them to consider if they want the latest technology providing high-speed connectivity to their aircraft."

So how does Gogo see demand for faster services changing over the next few years?

“If history is any indication, we believe business travellers will demand more speed and bandwidth – just like we’ve seen an increase for it on the ground.

“In-flight connectivity has gone from being a nice to have, to a necessity. We also see connectivity enabling new services that will increase safety and efficiency, providing real-time turbulence data collected and delivered by the aircraft via Gogo’s networks, and then aggregated and analysed for use by other aircraft.

“The better and faster the network operates, the better the services and apps will operate,” Barhouche concluded.


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