Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband (SBB) aeronautical service is going to become standard on all new Airbus long-range aircraft and there is reason to believe that Boeing may follow Airbus’ lead and make SBB standard on its 787 twinjet (paving the way for SBB to find a place on other Boeing widebodies, including the 747-8).
So why is there a perceived competition between L-band satellite-based SBB and Ku-band connectivity? What’s all the fuss about?
There shouldn’t be a fuss, according to Emirates vice-president for passenger communications Patrick Brannelly.
“That’s the oddity [that] people are not realizing. SwiftBroadband is going to be a standard… the standard connectivity platform for an aircraft,” he says, noting that SwiftBroadband and Ku “are very different products” and can’t be compared simply because the word broadband is in the title.
SwiftBroadband, which will support data rates of about 432 kilobits per second (two channels), is good for in-flight GSM/GPRS connectivity offerings, such as those on offer from AeroMobile and OnAir, and light Internet use.
It is also great for keeping the cabin crew connected to the ground. “If you want to have just your cabin crew connected for operational reasons, you could probably get a lot of that done over [Inmarsat's] Swift64 but certainly over SwiftBroadband,” says Brannelly.
As time goes by, SwiftBroadband is also expected to play an increasingly important role in the cockpit. By 2013, SBB customers will be allowed to install four SwiftBroadband channels, two for the cabin and two for the cockpit.
OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains says: “Passenger connectivity is nice to have but it’s not critical. The cockpit communication is critical.”
Airbus views SwiftBroadband as the entry-point to connectivity for its long-haul aircraft. Progress has been made on that front. An Airbus A330-300 being delivered to Oman Air will become the first commercial widebody to enter service with the airframer’s ALNA v2 platform over SwiftBroadband.
Boeing’s recent RFI shows it too is leaning in a similar direction. But when it comes down to brass tax, SwiftBroadband is at best a medium-band offering that does not support multiple heavy users of in-flight Internet. For that, at present, you need Ku.
“Let’s say you have 20 passengers that want toconnect to VPN. That uses up a lot of bandwidth, and you need to have asolution and Ku looks to be the only solution to for that but there areother things coming along in the future,” says Brannelly, after revealing that the carrier has stepped up its studies of Ku-band connectivity.
Ku most definitely solves the bandwidth issue. But it doesn’t solve the latency and congestion issues. If you’re interested in a little light reading about the difference between latency and bandwidth with respect to satellite communications, check out the following links:
It’s latency, stupid!
Satellite communications in the Global Internet: Issues, Pitfalls, and Potential
Wikipedia – Comparison_of_latency_and_bandwidth
ITU white paper on Latency
But back to the ever-newsworthy Patrick Brannelly. I asked the Emirates executive if the carrier would ever offer Ku-band connectivity via its in-flight entertainment systems?
After all, Emirates offers very high-end Panasonic IFE and Panasonic happens to be bringing its Ku-band eXConnect solution to market (a solution that is going to be launched by former Connexion customer Lufthansa).
Says Brannelly: “There is some synergy obviously with the Panasonic system, but I’m not sure many passengers would necessarily be surfing the Internet through the seat-back TV screens because it’s a very unfamiliar interface. Some would. They’d want to get on and do their hotmail (or social media) [but] which they don’t really need bandwidth for.”
Okay, so I have one final question for Brannelly: If there isn’t a war between SBB and Ku, what in the heck am I going to write about?