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NBAA: In-flight connectivity covering all bases

Sky-high demand for in-flight connectivity from all corners of the business aviation market is driving a hive of activity among service providers on both the air-to-ground (ATG) and satellite fronts. This year will see the first-phase rollout of newcomer SmartSky Networks' North American 4G LTE service, putting it in direct competition with incumbent ATG provider Gogo.

Meanwhile, Inmarsat and ViaSat continue to duke it out on the satellite side, albeit with differing strategies. The former has elected to dip its fingers in both pies with a plan to bring its soon-to-launch commercial hybrid ATG and satellite solution to European business aviation operators, alongside its existing Jet ConneX satellite-based service, while the latter remains laser-focused on its mission to provide high-capacity, global satellite coverage.

SmartSky Networks is in the process of modifying a network of leased ground towers to support its new ATG service, and has completed "over 80%" of the work", says the company's chief commercial officer, Nancy Walker. This will enable it to begin offering the solution to business aviation operators before the end of this year on two flight "corridors", New York to Chicago and New York to Miami. Full coast-to-coast coverage will be available by mid-2019.

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"This will not be an all-at-once launch. It's being set up while we're working on STCs [supplemental type certificates]," says Walker, adding that the first STC is expected on a Gulfstream G550 in October. "We've got about 25 different aircraft types where we have agreements in place with partners." No launch customer has been named, but Walker says that "we have a long list of what we call early bird" customers.

While SmartSky's "flagship" service is aimed at larger business jets, the company will also offer, from mid-2019, a "light system", targeted at the light jet and turboprop market. "With the light product, operators who had no choice before are very excited – this opens up a whole new market," says Walker.

SmartSky's service will boast "20 times the spectrum that most connectivity providers have", she adds, and will offer a "low latency, high speed, bi-directional" product, meaning that "you can get as much data on to the aircraft as off the aircraft".

"Our network was designed from the very beginning to be very scalable. Each aircraft will communicate with its own beam and there will be 20,000 beams in the network," says Walker. "We can easily augment capacity, so if we see a place where there are a lot of business aviation aircraft, we can add additional towers and beams."

SmartSky will go head-to-head with Gogo, which has its own well-established ATG network in North America and is pushing the 4G AVANCE L5 service it launched last year. Gogo appears to welcome the competition, and is confident that its greater experience in the market will stand it in good stead.

SmartSky's launch "will be a very good thing for the market" because "nobody likes not having an option", says Sergio Aguirre, president of Gogo's business aviation division. "Customers will now see the value proposition that Gogo brings," says Aguirre, although he believes that performance, rather than price, will be the "driving force" when it comes to selecting a connectivity provider. "You need to have confidence that the system will work reliably because in aviation, it's not a question of if it breaks, but when.

"For the last 10 years Gogo has been number one or number two [for aftermarket support] and you can't out a price on that. I don't think price is going to drive selection – it's going to be performance and back-up."

Gogo's AVANCE L5 system "is doing much better than originally forecast", says Aguirre, adding that "from March we were sold out through the rest of the year, so we had to increase our supply chain capabilities".

Earlier this year, Gogo launched a 3G in-flight connectivity service known as L3 in addition to its 4G L5 product. In much the same way as SmartSky sees a new market in the smaller jet and turboprop market for its planned 'light' system, Gogo believes the L3 service – which requires "much smaller boxes" – will open new doors with operators who previously did not have any in-flight connectivity.

"It allows people that aren't sure if they really need connectivity to enter into the connectivity era at a much lower price point," says Aguirre, adding that there is always the option to upgrade in the future.

The L3 service itself is split into three layers, depending on the requirements and budget of the customer. L3 Core, offered in the $40,000 range, is a "good system for four or five people on a turboprop aircraft that want email and light Internet service", says Aguirre. There are also two other options – L3 Plus and L3 Max – which provide a progressively enhanced 3G experience that can be accessed on a greater number of devices.

"Each has a different price point, so if you decide you want more connectivity and more speed, you can go from Core to Plus [without having to] take out the old box," says Aguirre.

Another company firmly of the belief that satellite-based in-flight connectivity does not spell the end for ATG is Inmarsat, which currently offers the Jet ConneX Ka-band satellite service to business aviation operators but announced earlier this year that it will also make its hybrid European Aviation Network (EAN) system available to the sector.

EAN integrates connectivity from a satellite operated by Inmarsat with an LTE-based ground network operated by Deutsche Telekom. It covers all 28 European Union member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland. The service is on the verge of being launched by International Airlines Group (IAG) in the commercial aviation market, but Inmarsat announced in May that it will also be available to business aviation operators in 2019.

Inmarsat vice-president business and general aviation Kurt Weidemeyer says the company is "talking to a couple of launch customers" and hopes to make an announcement in the fourth quarter of this year. The first business aviation EAN installations are expected to take place early in the second quarter of 2019.

Weidemeyer says the EAN service will mean that smaller business aircraft in Europe, which are "screaming for a [connectivity] solution", will be able to install a system that is "as good as satellite". Some operators of larger business aircraft that travel outside the European Union and have already installed Jet ConneX are also "looking to add this [EAN] on".

Jet ConneX sales are "going much better than I predicted", says Weidemeyer, and Inmarsat is on track to achieve its 400th installation of the system by the end of the year.

Rival satellite company ViaSat is "aware of what the competition is saying they will bring to the market" on the ATG front, says global business development director for business and VVIP aviation James Person, but "right now, we're hyper-focused on bringing the best satellite-enabled in-flight connectivity solution – at the best economics – to our business aviation customers".

ViaSat announced in May that Embraer had become the first business jet original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customer for its Ka-band in-flight connectivity service, and said it expected this to kick off the transition from its existing Ku-band service.

Customers for ViaSat’s Ku-band service will eventually be able to either lift out the previous system and replace it with Ka, or opt for a dual-band solution that enables them to keep the Ku service as a backup, or use it as a bridge until all three of the company’s Ka-band satellites have been launched.

"Over the past few months we've been expanding our business aviation dealer programme. We're now at over 20 aircraft MROs and completion centres that can sell and install ViaSat's high-speed Ka-band, Ku-band and dual Ku/Ka-band in-flight Internet equipment to large and mid-cabin business jet and privately-owned Boeing and Airbus customers," says Person.

"We've been working with OEMs, where we expect to announce our next Ka-band mid-size OEM deal, and we're adding new capacity and coverage with ViaSat-2 satellite-enabled Ka-band service."

ViaSat is confident that this unwavering focus on satellite-based connectivity will put it in a strong position when it comes to competing for business, with Person noting: "We believe only Viasat has an executable roadmap that concentrates on having lots of capacity – especially in highly-congested air corridors – to ensure connectivity that can keep pace with future demand."

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