In-Flight Broadband Consistency More Important Than Speed, Bizav Users Tell Inmarsat

Inmarsat tech

Satcom Direct's Plane Simple Ka-band terminal will be compatible with Inmarsat's new Jet ConneX plans.

Credit: Inmarsat

GENEVA—A pair of related announcements made by Inmarsat at EBACE underline both the importance to the business-aviation user base of reliable, high-bandwidth cabin connectivity, and the challenges that broadband service providers face in ensuring that they keep one step ahead of the demands of particularly demanding customers. 

The communications provider launched new service plans for its Jet ConneX product, and also confirmed that the Plane Simple Ka-band terminal developed by its partner and reseller, Satcom Direct, will be compatible. The antenna is undergoing flight tests on board Satcom Direct's Gulfstream G550.

The development of the Plane Simple hardware represents "a pretty major investment into a new, second-generation antenna that will work on our most advanced satellites that are up already in orbit, as well as new ones coming down the line," Kai Tang, Inmarsat's head of business aviation, tells ShowNews.

"It's really exciting for us, because it's showing that they've made that successful leap. Their testing has been going great, and they are on the cusp of being able to offer that terminal, and our services, to customers," Tang adds.

Being able to provide the capability is, in many respects, the easy part, Tang argues. Also, while much coverage and attention may focus on connectivity speed, surveys that the company conducts regularly suggest that may not be what the business-aviation customer feels is the highest priority. 

"I would say that the more-and-more-bandwidth part is the easy part," Tang says. "One thing that has changed is that [customers] feel connectivity is a must-have rather than a nice-to-have. For those of us in the industry, that's a nice change—that's an expected change [and] a welcome change. But what's really interesting is that what they want most is a consistent performance."

Delivering that consistency to an aircraft flying an on-demand, short-notice route that may well see the fast-moving airplane flying outside areas that are well covered by multiple constellations is a significant challenge. Meeting customer expectations relies not just on the provision of satellites and associated ground infrastructure, but terminals and antennas onboard the aircraft that are capable of delivering consistently despite the many constantly changing variables.

While some providers appear to be able to offer parts of this requirement set, few will be able to successfully deliver them all without interruption, Tang says. 

"It's not just satellite coverage as in, 'I can see the country,' but 'I can service you in that country.' That's a whole other ball game," he says.

"There's constellations up there, many with thousands [of spacecraft]—they can see the entire world, but that doesn’t mean they can service that part of the world. That's a whole other art form—of getting regulatory approval to operate in every country, for overflight, for domestic."

Ensuring that technology developed today will be capable of meeting the requirements of the user in five, 10, 15 years is a constant struggle, but one that the company believes, with the help of its resellers and partners, it can win.

"For us, the hard stuff around future-proofing is what comes around how you make sure that when this aircraft takes off in New York and flies all the way across to Geneva that it's going to have that same, consistent experience all the way across," Tang says. 

The new Jet ConneX plans will also be available to users of second-generation terminals in development from Honeywell and Orbit. The network will see seven additional Inmarsat payloads enter service by 2025—in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits—which will further increase bandwidth capacity and resilient data throughput. 

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.