Internet connectivity goes to new heights

  • 17-Nov-2011 01:47 EST
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ViaSat’s terminals and antenna don’t take much space, making them attractive for business aircraft.

Aircraft makers are racing to respond to consumers who want to be wired regardless of where they are. They’re teaming with cellular and satellite service providers to let consumers access the Web at any elevation regardless of weather conditions.

Cellular and satellite companies are pushing to expand their available bandwidth and broaden their coverage. Cellular providers can offer lower costs over many populated areas, while satellite links offer high bandwidth and coverage over oceans and even the polar regions.

Internet service providers are leveraging both technologies, and more aircraft now include the antennas and servers that let them connect to the Web. As Web connectivity becomes more important for both commercial and business aviation, system providers are racing to reduce the size of equipment that flies on aircraft.

“There are advances in products like linear power amps, band converters, and other components that will make the next-generation equipment smaller and lighter than the prior generation,” said Bob Ellis, Director of Flight Information Solutions at Rockwell Collins.

At the same time, communication providers are focusing on different techniques to let aircraft owners connect to the Web. A seemingly nonstop barrage of cell phone advertising highlights the vibrancy of these links. Though satellite activity is less publicized, it’s no less active.

Cell towers are playing a major role in many aeronautic architectures. Cellular phone connections aren’t allowed in the U.S. at this time, but they are growing in popularity in other regions. Several Middle Eastern airlines permit their usage, and British Airways allows cell phone connections on some flights.

Though commercial passengers in the U.S. can’t connect directly to cell towers, America’s aircraft industry is not ignoring the wireless boom. Services such as Gogo Inc.’s Inflight Internet service use cellular links to bring Web access to passengers.

Gogo, which provides services for American Airlines, Delta, and others, deploys cellular technology provided by Aircell. Aircell announced an upgrade to its Air-to-Ground (ATG) system to 4G connections early this year, with plans to begin deliveries in mid-2012.

ATG-4 will provide around four times more bandwidth than the ATG that is now flying on many commercial airlines. ATG employs 3G wireless that uses Evolution-Data Optimized Revision A. ATG-4 gets its speed increases by employing a directional antenna, dual modem, and EV-DO Rev. B technologies. This revision provides higher data rates and the ability to combine three or four carriers. Along with the enhanced antenna and modem, they yield significant benefits without a major increase in size.

Avionics system developers will continue to benefit from the rapid pace of the consumer industry. Cell phone providers are continuously pushing technology. Networking schemes used inside the aircraft are also moving forward. The Wi-Fi links used to connect passengers to the plane’s server have advanced rapidly as the volunteers who create IEEE standards have created faster versions of the 802.11 standards that are now common on notebooks, tablets, and smart phones.

“The standards for connectivity are not driven by the aerospace industry; they’re driven by commercial standards like 802.11, which has gone from a to b and on to n,” Ellis said. “We’re also impacted by cell phones as they go from 3G to 4G to LTE.”

Commercial and business aviation are also benefiting from another communications trend, this one driven in part by defense communities. Demand for satellite services has skyrocketed in recent years, driven in part by the U.S. DOD.

DOD buyers have made a major shift from using proprietary communications satellites to buying bandwidth from commercial providers. Many other countries have similar plans, and non-military agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security are also turning to commercial suppliers.

These trends, along with growing commercial demand, have driven a significant expansion in satellite communications over the past decade. It shows no signs of slowing down. A Northern Sky Research report released this summer predicted that the global mobile satellite services market will grow to $10.2 billion in 2020, more than doubling from today’s volume.

Satellite providers are responding with several launches. Intelsat will launch eight new satellites between 2011 and 2013. Inmarsat is working with Boeing to develop three satellites that will begin launching in 2013.

These launches serve two functions. They increase the available bandwidth, and they are expanding coverage around the globe. Iridium Communications touts itself as the only truly global provider, with a satellite constellation that covers both poles. Most other satellites focus on the latitudes where most people live and where ships and aircraft typically move.

Internet service providers that focus on aircraft don’t usually have to address the polar regions, so their definition of global coverage is a bit looser. Still, many are increasing their coverage so planes routed near the poles can maintain connectivity. For example, Row 44 Inc. recently signed a contract with Intelsat’s fleet of Ku-band satellites that will let Row 44 offer global service by the end of 2013.

ViaSat is also providing near-global coverage, offering both antennas and satellite connections. In August, Bombardier joined other aircraft makers who will put ViaSat’s very small aperture terminals on its planes.

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