Satcom Direct

SD has 3G capability now but a partnership with SmartSky will
offer subscribers 4G LTE speeds.

By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor
ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B

Satcom Direct security features monitor portable electronic devices in real time to protect the airborne network from nefarious activity or inadvertent computer viruses brought onboard by passengers.

Imagine being a flight department manager in 1997. Early on a Monday morning, the company's brand new Falcon 50EX with the recently introduced Collins Pro Line 4 avionics package departs on a business trip with executives onboard. A few hours later you arrive at the office and soon thereafter, your Nokia 9000 Communicator rings. The caller is the spouse of one of the passengers, saying there's been an emergency that necessitates time-critical decision making. The 1st logistical issue is how to reach the aircraft using standard telephonic voice communications.

The need to contact those aboard aircraft to relay business-related messages was what prompted Jim Jensen to start Satcom Direct in the late 1990s.While traveling the world as a satellite communications support technician, Jensen noted the absence of a service provider that could deliver uninterrupted global satcom coverage for aircraft in flight. Ironically, he pitched the idea to his bosses but the concept was dismissed.

Undeterred, Jensen enlisted the help of a software developer and went out on his own. The end product was the patented Global One Number (GON), a single 10-digit telephone number that is routed to an aircraft irrespective of where that aircraft is in the world.
In the present era of constant connectivity, this principle seems so rudimentary. But at that time (a decade before the 1st iPhone would hit the market), it was revolutionary.

GON was only the beginning

GON provided the impetus to develop additional technologies and services to attract customers from all segments of the communications industry. In 2002, Satcom Direct created a division devoted to military and government needs. That year was also a personal milestone for Jim Jensen in that he began learning to fly. His aircraft of choice was a Cessna 182 and when it was time to get an instrument rating, he switched to a Beechcraft G36 Bonanza.

Later, a Baron BE58 provided multi-engine experience. It's reassuring to see an entrepreneur that understands and appreciates the needs of business aviation and Jensen touted the utility and convenience of all 3 aircraft during an interview with NBAA in 2014.

Satcom Direct now operates a Cessna Citation and has access to larger aircraft as necessary for development and testing. According to company literature, Satcom Direct is a global connectivity provider for aviation offering "nose-to-tail value-added services, such as flightdeck datalink service, accelerated high-speed data, voice and text, ATS position reporting, mobile applications and unified electronic billing." Through partnerships and affiliations with top tier organizations like Inmarsat, Iridium, ViaSat, Universal, and SmartSky, Satcom Direct is involved directly or indirectly with approximately 10,000 aircraft.

The original one dial calling to a hard-wired phone in the cabin eventually evolved into incorporating personal electronic devices (PEDs). The Satcom Direct GlobalVT service allows the full functionality of a customer's smartphone, including texting, data service, and contact list access, to be utilized from takeoff to landing and across the globe. By using a proprietary method of reducing the bandwidth without impacting the quality of a call (down to roughly 25% of what would be expected if the same call was made using a cell band), Satcom Direct mitigates the latency issues typically associated with satellite communications.

Satcom Direct safeguards information with a private data center

On the coast of Florida there's a 25,000 sq ft nondescript building reinforced to withstand a level 5 hurricane. This building is a critical component in keeping Satcom Direct customers' data safe and secure.

Unlike other custodians of critical data, Satcom Direct does not outsource data storage and management to outside vendors. Data stays in-house. This is important because connectivity has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to wirelessly exchange information without considering the potential security (or lack thereof) implications. Connecting to a wireless network at a coffee shop, hotel, or FBO is a common practice amongst pilots and passengers alike, but experts and pundits point out that unsecured networks are the harbingers of malicious activity. Nonetheless, people still use them.

Refraining from financial transactions or conducting activities that reveal personal information on public networks is prudent, but even mundane internet browsing can lead to compromised security. That e-mail from the department store that promises half off your next purchase, if you click on the link, might be a phishing attempt (using a legitimate looking e-mail to mask a nefarious purpose).

If a computer infected with a virus is brought onboard the aircraft, it has the potential to wreak havoc with the network – dispelling the belief that once off the ground the airborne Wi-Fi is safe from hackers. Even a maintenance technician downloading data for analysis could introduce a compromised computer to an otherwise secure system.

Avoiding cyber attacks

To combat the growing threat of cyber attacks, Satcom Direct has developed a comprehensive 4-part solution: network discovery, security risk assessment, risk mitigation and threat services, and an exclusive private data network. Every flight department is unique in mission profile and who flies onboard the aircraft, so there's really no off-the-shelf approach when it comes to cyber security.

The process begins by identifying likely points of weakness in the system and determining the best way to reinforce them. Experts can recommend antivirus and malware protection best suited for the department.
Most interesting is an enhanced service called "threat intelligence." Satcom Direct security experts monitor the data traffic onboard the aircraft in real time and use analytic tools to identify – and stop – suspicious activity at an early onset and before it propagates. The most advanced option is to employ the Satcom Direct Private Network (SDPN).

Understanding the framework requires a bit of knowledge on how the internet operates. Individual computers get to the internet by connecting through a point-of-presence (POP). This is not to be confused with POP3, or post office protocol which is a way in which clients and servers handle e-mail. The POP is a physical structure that consists of servers, routers, switches, electronics, and other digital components. POPs are typically operated by telecommunications companies or more specifically, Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

In a hypothetical home installation, a personal computer would connect to a modem, (often combined with a router) which would transmit the signal to a regional POP. To form the backbone of the internet as we know it today, regional POPs connect to other POPs through network access points.


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