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EBACE: Connectivity competition tightens in business aviation market

Competition between in-flight connectivity providers to the business aviation market is intensifying, as incumbents and newcomers jostle to put across the message that they are best-placed to meet rapidly growing demand for these services.

With its Jet ConneX in-flight broadband service for business aviation operators now launched, satellite company Inmarsat believes it enters this year’s EBACE in a particularly strong position.

“At NBAA we were talking about the launch, but now we can say it’s here,” says Inmarsat Aviation vice-president business aviation Kurt Weidemeyer. “By EBACE we will have 60 aircraft installed, and customers absolutely love it. This was probably the smoothest launch I’ve been around.”

Get all the coverage from EBACE here, 22-24 May

Inmarsat has line-fit contracts in place with two business aircraft original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and aims to have secured supplemental type certificates (STCs) on “every major platform” that can take a tail-mounted antenna “by the end of the year”, says Weidemeyer.

“Bombardier is installing at the factory and Gulfstream is transitioning to factory installation in the next 30 to 60 days,” he adds.

Weidemeyer says “a handful of customers” with an existing air-to-ground (ATG) in-flight connectivity system have told Inmarsat “they’re just going to turn it off”, noting that appealing to operators of larger business jets will be “challenging” for ATG providers.

Gogo Business Aviation, meanwhile, is improving its ATG offering while seeking to attract VVIP aircraft customers to its Ku-band satellite connectivity service, 2Ku.

“For Europe, we are excited that 2Ku, Gogo’s satellite solution that is delivering 100Mbps to commercial aircraft today and is flying on more than 130 commercial airplanes currently, is now available to VVIP (very large) business aircraft. We see 2Ku as a great option for anyone flying a large business aircraft in that part of the world. 2Ku is a global solution,” says Gogo.

The company’s new Gogo Biz 4G air-to-ground service is on track to launch by the end of the current quarter. The technology was developed specifically for the business aviation market and it uses the company’s existing ground network of more than 250 cellular towers. Operators can access the network by installing “a single, lightweight box”, says Gogo.

The Gogo Biz 4G service will also offer Gogo Vision, which provides movies and television shows, flight tracker, real-time weather reports, Gogo Text & Talk – which allows passengers to call and text with their personal smartphones – streaming video and audio, live face-to-face conversations through a user’s favourite application, email with attachments, and web browsing.

Gogo has not named a specific launch customer, but says: “We do, however, have fleet agreements in place with charter operators Delta Private Jets and XOJET. Both will begin adding the service once it is ready and available for installation.”

Several dealers are working towards securing STCs for a number of other business aircraft types, and Gogo says that “more will be announced in the coming weeks”.

Duncan Aviation is gaining Gogo Biz 4G STCs for the Falcon 900 series, Bombardier Global Express series, Challenger 600 series and Gulfstream 200 aircraft. Constant Aviation is seeking STCs for Embraer 145 Series Shuttle, Legacy 600/650, Gulfstream V, and Phenom 300 aircraft.

Meanwhile, Western Aircraft will develop STCs for the Dassault Falcon 2000 series and Silverhawk Aviation is working on the Cessna Citation 560 series.

Gogo says interest is “strong” for the service. “Through various promotions and customer rewards offers, we have nearly 1,000 current and/or potential customers who have either committed to, or have stated their intent, to add the Gogo Biz 4G service to their aircraft,” it says.

Inmarsat’s Jet ConneX service will also compete with rival satellite company ViaSat’s Exede in the Air Ka-band solution. ViaSat already offers a Ku-band in-flight broadband service to the business aviation sector, known as Yonder, but is on the verge of launching its second Ka-band satellite – ViaSat-2 – to support Exede.

ViaSat-2 is scheduled to launch aboard an Arianspace Ariane 5 rocket on 1 June and will be in service in early 2018. It will cover North America, Central America, the Caribbean, part of northern South America and the transatlantic flight corridor between North America and Europe.

ViaSat says its second Ka-band satellite will double the bandwidth of ViaSat-1, providing more than 300Gbps of total network capacity and seven times the broadband coverage.

These speeds are essential to meet the needs of demanding business aviation customers, says James Person, director of business aviation/VVIP at ViaSat.

“Internet service reliability is a ‘must have’ in a business jet flyer’s requirement, and their satellite communications system must be highly consistent in order to deliver an ‘office in the sky’ environment,” says Person.

“ViaSat’s Ka- and global Ku-band networks have been reliably providing in-flight wi-fi service with advanced streaming video capabilities to thousands of commercial, government and business aircraft, and millions of personal electronic devices each month – with high speeds, performance and service reliability.

“We continue to bring this integrated market expertise, and our depth of understanding as to how people want to use the internet in the cabin, to improve on-board experiences for business jet passengers and crew.”

A key selling point for business aviation customers of ViaSat’s solutions is that the Ka and Ku antennas are smaller and lighter than competing options and can be installed together in the tail of the aircraft, says Person.

“With our smaller size system – which leverages the most powerful satellites in the industry – we don’t require any space in the baggage compartment for our equipment, as we are designed to be installed in the non-pressurised areas of the aircraft. This is critical from a cabin space management perspective, as many other providers’ systems occupy room in the tail and the luggage, or other pressurised areas,” he notes.

Person adds that with Via-Sat-2 about to launch, “business aviation customers will have access to best-in-the-industry data plans, with peak rates of 16Mbps on all plans, with both Ka and Ku data included in one low monthly service fee”.

But Inmarsat’s Weidemeyer believes that ViaSat and other providers have some catching up to do to be able to offer a similar solution to Jet ConneX. “Assuming ViaSat launches [its other satellites], they can’t provide global coverage for years to come.

“The biggest thing we have is a solution that exists today. We’re the only satellite service provider that can give superior Ka service everywhere,” he says.

Inmarsat does not sell its Jet ConneX service direct to the business aviation market and has no intention of doing so. Instead it uses a group of value-added resellers, including SatCom Direct, Rockwell Collins (as part of its Arinc Direct offering) and Honeywell Aerospace.

The latter, during last year’s NBAA show, unveiled its GoDirect suite of connectivity services, which it says provides customers with a “single source of support” across areas including cabin connectivity, flight support and maintenance and service plans.

On the connectivity side, this covers Inmarsat’s L-band satellite-based SwiftBroadband service as well as its Jet ConneX solution, for which Honeywell provides its JetWave hardware.

While NBAA was an opportunity to roll out the GoDirect suite, EBACE will see Honeywell “rolling out an entire suite of upgrades” to the service, says the company’s senior director of connectivity services, John Peterson.

“We’ve gone into the community and listened to the things users were really looking for, and we’ve compiled a suite of services to provide operators with more information about these services,” he says, adding that the GoDirect portal “gives operators control over their networks to make sure they’re maximising data and reducing costs”.

Jet ConneX services have been incorporated into the portal, the philosophy of which is that this creates an “ecosystem” whereby the network, the Honeywell routers and the portal “all talk to each other”, says Peterson.

Panasonic Avionics is also planning to enter the business aviation in-flight connectivity market, albeit as a relative latecomer to the party, through its partnership with Astronics Aerosat.

Astronics AeroSat and Panasonic announced their partnership at the 2015 NBAA convention. The idea is to connect Astronics’ tail-mounted satellite communications solution to Panasonic’s Global Communications Services Ku-band network to provide a high-speed broadband service to the business aviation market.

Last October Satcom Direct become the first value-added reseller for Panasonic’s business aviation service. The Astronics Aerosat hardware that will support the new service received its first US FAA STC in December on a Gulfstream G-IVSP. Astronics said at the time that “the initial STC covers all G-IV family aircraft with additional aircraft anticipated to be included via follow-on STCs starting in the first quarter of 2017”.

The Ku-band satellite-based connectivity system is targeted at the super mid-sized business jet market, covering aircraft ranging from the Bombardier Challenger 604 and Cessna Citation X up to the Gulfstream 650.

Panasonic Global Communications Service vice president David Bruner acknowledged to Flight Evening News during last year’s EBACE that there are “entrenched parties” already active in the business aviation in-flight connectivity market, but claimed competitors were not providing a service that lives up to customer expectations.

Panasonic declined an interview request for this article, noting that it has no update to provide “at this time”.

Inmarsat’s Weidemeyer appears unfazed by the prospect of Panasonic entering the business aviation market. “Panasonic has one STC on an old G-IV,” he says, adding that “Panasonic has a lot of work to do”. He says Inmarsat is “in a good position” and “it’s going to take several years for others to catch up”.

Another newcomer to the market is SmartSky Networks, which is developing a 4G air-to-ground network known as SmartSky 4G LTE. The service is initially targeted at the business aviation market but the company plans to extend it to the commercial sector. SmartSky claims its solution “stands apart as the only in-flight network capable of offering services with real-time bi-directional connectivity, without the latency of satellite-based solutions”.

The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company announced in March that it had completed funding for nationwide deployment of its 4G LTE network in the USA later this year. Rollout is under way, says SmartSky, with “the vast majority of sites expected to be operational this fall”. Business jet demonstration flights have already been carried out, and the company says customers are lining up for the service.

SmartSky chief executive Haynes Griffin said in March: “A significant number of customers joined our Early Bird waiting list to secure their spot at the head of the line. SmartSky and its partners have already begun the process of obtaining a supplemental type certification needed for installation on each aircraft model type.

“We expect Early Bird customer installs of our patented technology to commence next quarter, immediately following completion of the first few STCs.”

TrueNorth Avionics announced in October that its Optelity Cabin Gateway communications platform had been approved for use in the SmartSky 4G LTE network.

Also announced in October was a partnership with Avidyne Corporation, which will provide and support SmartSky’s airborne products in the business aviation market. While SmartSky’s under-development products are aimed at mid-size and larger cabin business aircraft, through its partnership with Avidyne the company says it will “provide products and services with price/performance points targeted for the light general aviation aircraft up through the low end of the business aviation market, which are not currently served”.

Under the terms of their agreement, Avidyne will secure parts manufacturing authorisation (PMA) for the new hardware, provide ground- and flight-test services, and develop the initial STC for installation.

Get all the coverage from EBACE here, 22-24 May

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