inmarsat gears up for future connectivity needs

September 12, 2019

Powered by Inmarsat’s Ka-band Global Xpress network, Jet ConneX offers the fastest global satellite data rates in Business Aviation. Steve Nichols takes a close look at the next generation in connectivity

Inmarsat says it is gearing up for future inflight connectivity needs with more satellites and faster access over Jet ConneX (JX), its Ka-band solution for Business Aviation.

Jet ConneX has now been in commercial service for a little under three years. Using the Inmarsat GX Ka-band satellites, the service was originally launched with a maximum speed for 15Mbps. Honeywell Aerospace has been the hardware supplier throughout, and take-up was rapid.

Inmarsat announced last October that Jet ConneX had already been installed and activated on 400 business jets worldwide.

Kai Tang, senior vice president of Business and General Aviation at Inmarsat, said: “Jet ConneX has firmly established itself as the gold standard for Business Aviation inflight broadband. It is built on 40 years of Inmarsat’s experience in global, mobile connectivity, and we are proud of that leadership over the years, paving the way with our partners for what a reliable and trusted connectivity service looks like for the most demanding and important customers.

“The response from the market has been incredible. To date, more than 500 Jet ConneX installations have now been completed across the world and take-up rates show no signs of slowing down.

“A business jet is a sizeable investment and it’s no surprise to anyone that connectivity is no longer just a luxury, but a must-have as part of that investment.”

It says that Jet ConneX is the preferred line-fit option by all of the market-leading business jet manufacturers including Gulfstream, Bombardier, Dassault and Embraer.

Gulfstream said recently that it had its 300th aircraft equipped with Jet ConneX.

“The office-in-the-sky experience is very much a reality with Gulfstream and Jet ConneX,” said Derek Zimmerman, president, Gulfstream Customer Support.

“Our customers value our ability to efficiently incorporate this technology on our aircraft and the consistent and reliable global coverage it provides. They are enjoying live TV programs, video streams and video connections, such as FaceTime, with their colleagues, family and friends.”

According to Inmarsat, Gulfstream has delivered more Jet ConneX-equipped aircraft than any other business-jet manufacturer. Deliveries, which began in May 2017, have included in-production large-cabin aircraft, the G650ER, G650, G550, the G500, which entered service in September 2018, and the all-new G600, which earned type and production certification on June 28 from the FAA. Nearly half the installations are retrofits.

But Inmarsat isn’t resting on its laurels. In May, it launched ‘JX-Pro’, a new top-end package for Jet ConneX, with unlimited data usage and 33% higher speeds – up to 20Mbps – compared with the service’s previous fastest plan.

The new package was unveiled at the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE) in Geneva.

“It provides new and existing Jet ConneX customers with unrivalled performance and the fastest connectivity speeds available in the market. The market has responded very well to the launch and we look forward to rolling out the ground-breaking new capabilities of this package offering with our global network of partners,” said Tang.

“We strive to evolve the service in response to market feedback, as the launch of JX-Pro has shown. Demand is expected to be strong and we look forward to rolling out the ground-breaking new capabilities of this package offering with our global network of partners.”

But to stay ahead of the game you have to keep moving. Which is why the company announced in May that it had signed a contract with Airbus Defence & Space to develop a new generation of satellites for its Global Xpress (GX) network.

The satellites, named GX7, 8 and 9, will be optimized for real-time mobility and feature thousands of dynamically-formed beams that direct capacity with laser-like precision over high-demand areas.

With focused, ultra-high-power capacity layered over high demand flight routes and airport hubs during peak hours, the satellites will revolutionize aviation connectivity.

While the comments regarding capacity are obviously aimed at commercial users, Business Aviation should be able to take advantage of the new satellites as well.

Inmarsat says the network can rapidly grow capacity for customers through in-orbit repositioning or even launching a new satellite, making it perfectly suited to meet the aviation industry’s ever-changing needs.

Breaking from industry tradition to enable a faster response to growing customer demand, the next-generation GX satellites will be delivered significantly faster than traditional procurement lifecycles.

“GX is much more than just a satellite constellation, it’s a complete end-to-end solution and we have been equally ambitious in developing our ground stations, hardware, software and cybersecurity framework,” said Tang.

“Our partners layer on top even more value added capabilities and industry experience that are unmatched. This is unique to Inmarsat and positions us as a leader and innovator in this industry, allowing us to put our Business Aviation customer needs at the heart of our future investment decisions.”

The new satellites are scheduled to launch from 2023 and build upon the existing GX high-speed global network, which consists of four satellites already in operation and three more being launched over the next three years, starting with the GX5 satellite later this year.

One advantage that low-Earth orbiting satellite systems like Iridium have over Jet ConneX is their ability to work in the polar regions. Geostationary satellite systems like Inmarsat GX run out of steam at about 85 degrees North and South of the equator.

But an announcement in July hopes to put that right. Inmarsat announced a contract to introduce two new highly-elliptical payloads for its Global Xpress network in partnership with Space Norway and its subsidiary Space Norway HEOSAT.

Scheduled to launch in 2022, GX10A and 10B will be the first satellites in the GX network to be placed into Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO), showcasing Inmarsat’s approach to providing customers with connectivity.

HEO or so-called Molniya orbits are a unique solution to the problem. As the name suggests they are highly elliptical with the satellite’s apogee, or furthest point from the Earth, meaning the satellite appears to stay in roughly the same point in the sky for long periods.

It then descends quickly to its perigee point (closest point to Earth) before the process repeats. This means that while at apogee it presents pretty much the same target as a geostationary satellite does at the equator, but over the Arctic region.

It then becomes a software issue to keep the terminal pointing at the satellite.

The new payloads, GX10A and 10B, will provide Inmarsat’s airline and Business Aviation customers with even more capacity to meet rapidly-growing demand for seamless, reliable, high-speed mobile inflight broadband.

But while this has all been good news for fixed-wing operators, owners of rotary wing craft may have been feeling a little left out. Jet ConneX has never really worked on helicopters due to the blade chopping up the data packets.

However, Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband solution can be made to work, although throughput speeds are significantly lower that Jet ConneX – perhaps more like 1Mbps rather than 15Mps or higher.

A couple of years ago Inmarsat introduced new High Data Rate (HDR) capabilities for SwiftBroadband, the aircraft connectivity service provided through the Inmarsat-4 (I-4) satellites.

The new interleaving bearers can re-arrange information packets across a longer burst, making it more robust in tough conditions, including under helicopter rotors.

SwiftBroadband will work under a rotor without HDR, but an industry source told me that you are more likely to see just 150-200kbps.

But in March, Inmarsat announced its new SB-Helo X-Stream helicopter satcom solution for Cobham AVIATOR SP systems.

The new system is said to improve communications through rotor blades by reducing packet loss by up to 40%.

After extensive testing, Inmarsat and Cobham have developed a protocol in network Quality of Service (QoS) selection, as an enhancement of the Swiftbroadband X-Stream service – one of Inmarsat’s streaming services offering guaranteed on-demand high-streaming data rates over its L-band network.

This allows data from rotary wing aircraft to be transmitted to the Inmarsat satellite network, via dedicated modulation schemes. The increased resilience of the data pipeline passing through the rotors means that the transmission of high-intensity data, like video, will see an improvement in throughput of around 37%.

The free software update will allow a helicopter operating from a remote location to transmit a significantly improved video or data stream.

This capability is crucial for organizations operating rotary wing aircraft in specialized roles such as search and rescue, medical evacuation and military forces.

Todd McDonell, president of Global Government at Inmarsat, said: “Having worked with Cobham in the development of this new protocol, we are very pleased with the results we have seen from the trials and foresee that this cost-effective solution will be greatly sought after in the growing government helicopter market.”

Willem Kasselman, VP Sales, Marketing and Support at Cobham Aerospace Communications, said: “The launch of this new system represents a breakthrough for Cobham, solving a long-standing problem in helicopter satcom communications.

“The partnership between Cobham Aerospace Communications and Inmarsat is an important one for us and we look forward to building on this announcement and expanding and improving other related services over the coming months.”