Pressed by Qatar Airways and other major airlines to improve the capacity and speed of its SwiftBroadband (SBB) aeronautical service – which supports inflight Wi-Fi and GSM – Inmarsat will shortly double to four the number of channels of SBB available per aircraft, and is readying to upgrade its network software.
SBB currently supports data rates of up to 432 kbps per channel. “We have this basic capability and, interestingly, the Emirates Airbus A380 only uses one [of two] SBB channels for the carrier’s Wi-Fi service,” says Inmarsat director of aeronautical business David Coiley. Emirates in April told the APEX editor’s blog that this single channel of SBB was proving to be sufficient for the cabin, with virtually no complaints about congestion.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that passengers’ need for speed is growing. Row 44′s former head marketer Howard Lefkowitz may have said it best when he stated that passengers “want more, more, faster, better, cheaper”.
Cognisant of this trend Qatar Airways was “particularly vocal” about SBB on a number of fronts, confirms Inmarsat’s Coiley. Qatar is a customer of inflight connectivity provider OnAir, which operates its inflight Wi-Fi and GSM solutions over SBB.
“They [Qatar] were one of the key drivers on four-channel capability, which will be on their aircraft in a few months,” says Coiley. “We like customers like them and like Emirates, for example, which is a long-term advocate of Inmarsat. All markets need that customer push; and it galvanizes all players in the value chain, [including] the airframers.”
Coiley notes that Inmarsat is able to “re-exploit” developments in maritime connectivity “and push them into aviation”. But, he says: “We always need that customer focus to fine-tune it and deliver it into a particular end result solution. We love those challenging customers to push us into packaging things in the optimal way for those particular market requirements.”
As such, Inmarsat will upgrade its network software to RAM 4.0, in a move that will take its SBB service to a rate of “700 kbps or 800 kbps” in 2013, says Coiley. Coupled with the near-term availability of four channels, SBB will soon “be showing increased performance”.
Aggregation, otherwise known as “bonding” of SBB channels, is another way to increase capacity. Among the Inmarsat partners that have made gains in this regard in the business aviation world is Satcom1.The aggregation of two channels of SBB X-stream (a streaming class that offers full channel streaming) has been tested and implemented on an Airbus A320, and provides steady bandwidth levels of 900 kbps, says Satcom1 R&D engineer Francois Goudal.
The screenshot below shows the aggregation service in operation. A few seconds after initiation the two channels of X-stream aggregate and produce throughputs of 700kbps and 1 Mbps. On average the customer will experience throughputs of 700-800kbps, says Satcom1.
But what does this mean for users? “During [business jet] flights [fitted for SBB], it has up until now not been possible to watch streaming video services or any kind of live TV broadcasting without significantly interfering with the fluidity of the experience, as the required bandwidth has not been available,” explains Satcom1. “Aggregation is a tool that further enhances Satcom1’s vision of the office-in-the-sky concept. Until recently, aggregation has only been available within military bodies.”
Impressed with Satcom1’s results Inmarsat has requested that the company start testing aggregation of four channels. “This testing is already under way and will be announced when ready for the market,” says Satcom1, noting that Cobham hardware has been used for all testing “and has further provided four channel hardware for testing”. The aggregation service is, however, compatible with all SBB hardware manufacturers.
Asked by the APEX editor’s blog if Satcom1 is working on commercial airline applications, a Satcom1 spokeswoman said the company “is currently in the very early stages of three airline programmes which will be defined later”.