BANDWIDTH IS THE KEY

Going from "connected aircraft" to "connected aviation"

Gogo's connectivity is higher, more advanced and more useful.

By Kandi Spangler
Pvt-Inst.
Contributing Writer


With pax having more than just 1 connected device onboard, the demand for bandwidth continues to grow. But demand is not just limited to the back of the airplane as pilots are also faced with the task of bandwidth management, sometimes requiring pax to shut down devices in flight so bandwidth can be used by the flightcrew for flight-critical information, such as real-time weather.

What is the value of connectivity in the air? The obvious benefits include both business and personal communications. But we've been hearing about these advantages over the last decade. Technology has been changing at a lightning pace, and while some are still trying to figure out if they want to install Wi-Fi on their aircraft, others have gone far beyond the "connected aircraft" concept and have incorporated business practices and operational procedures using connectivity to make their flight departments more efficient aloft, allowing executive passengers to be more productive. But what's coming next?

The term "connected aircraft" is not officially defined, but it can be understood as the ability of the passengers and crew, as well as the aircraft itself, to communicate information between the aircraft and other users and systems. This includes everything from aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) messaging, to a phone call, to weather uplinks, to a FaceTime chat.

The 1st air-to-ground telephone capabilities were introduced in the 1930s by Northwestern Airlines. The service was very limited and extremely costly. In 1978, ARINC introduced ACARS, which used datalink systems to communicate with ground stations such as airports, operation centers and maintenance facilities to download pertinent flight data.

However, the early 2000s marked the end of the pre-digital era, allowing companies like Gogo, Inmarsat and ARINC to start expanding rapidly. Then in 2006, Gogo gained a competitive edge when it unexpectedly won a bid to acquire 1 of 2 air-to-ground 800 MHz spectrum licenses auctioned off by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Since then, both commercial and business aviation have steadily adopted the "connected aircraft" concept over the years to a point where an inoperative Wi-Fi on a business aircraft can be considered an AOG situation as far as passengers are concerned. Not all aircraft are equipped with the same connection capabilities, however. The 3 main factors effecting connectivity of any given aircraft are (1) air-to-ground or satellite network infrastructure for continuous coverage, (2) the bandwidth available and (3) the number of systems, sensors and individuals transferring data onboard. All those factors combine to determine how connected an aircraft is, with bandwidth being the most consistent limiting factor.

Let's look at where connected aviation will be in the next 30 years

Real-time, automated data-gathering of wx and turbulence will not only help pilot find the most optimal routing, it will help forecasters to better predict wx patterns across the world.

This relationship holds true for "connected aviation" as well. In an article published by Pro Pilot in Jan 2017, author Peter Berendsen, a Boeing 747 captain for Lufthansa, explores what major changes are likely to occur in the air transportation industry over the next 30 years. Mandates such as ADS-B and CPDLC hint at the possibilities, but only scratch the surface. Not only will there be far more business and commercial aircraft flying due to an exponentially-increasing population, but Berendsen also points out how aircraft will be coupled with and steered by ATC computers.

Along with other technological advancements, he talks about data being shared and collated into actionable information through various FMS systems talking to each other. One result is the capability of aircraft to fly, within 100 feet, the most optimum, direct routes and altitudes for current weather conditions. This is, in essence, the basis of "connected aviation" and, ultimately, it's the reason why there is a need for more and more bandwidth.

Gogo has been a major player in aviation connectivity since 2003 when the company, then called Aircell, focused exclusively on air-to-ground communications within business aviation. Today, Gogo is a global leader in broadband connectivity solutions and wireless entertainment for the entire aviation industry. The company develops both onboard hardware solutions and antenna technologies designed to optimize data streaming, whether through their own network of 250 air-to-ground towers or through their 2Ku licensed satellite spectrum.

In Sep 2016, Gogo announced technological advances (now called NextGen) capable of providing peak network speeds of up to 100 Mbps for both their North American ground-based and global satellite networks. As a precursor, in 2017 they will launch their Gogo Biz 4G air-to-ground (ATG) service enabling more bandwidth and enhanced capabilities which is easily upgradeable to NextGen when available.

This new service is expected to be available in 2018 and aims to give customers the same service and connectivity in the air as they can get through their own service provider on the ground. To get a perspective of what this means in terms of technological advancements, consider that the industry struggled to reach a bandwidth of 3 Mbps in 2006, which was considered exceptional at the time. Today, a bandwidth of 100Mbps is available. "In 10 years from now, all operators will be required to have a connected aircraft," says Gogo's Chief Technology Officer Anand Chari.

In addition to the increase in bandwidth currently being realized by operators, onboard equipment is now also lighter, requires less downtime to install and the antennas produce less drag due to their smaller size. The company also claims the newer equipment and service has substantial advantages in terms of latency compared to traditional satellite solutions in business aviation. With speeds now 30 times better than just 10 years ago, it's easy to see where we're headed as an industry.

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