Connecting Flight

Inmarsat’s Swift64 solution enables aeroplanes to be connected to the internet while in flight. This then gives passengers the ability to surf the web and to send e-mails, which is a key service differentiator for airlines.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  January 8, 2004

I|~|satworld_m.jpg|~||~|Inmarsat, the satellite communications provider, is focusing on the aviation sector as it looks to diversify out of its core markets of maritime and land communications. The Middle East is a particular target for the company, as the region’s airlines look to capitalise on inflight communications to gain a competitive edge in the market. Inmarsat’s core offering is Swift64, a mobile ISDN service that enables real time internet access from just about anywhere in the world. The company is using this technology to support communication services from land, sea and air, but the aviation sector is seen as offering the most potential, especially within the Middle East region. “We have recently opened our first regional office outside our London headquarters, and are currently in advanced talks for our Swift64 solutions with all the major Middle East airlines, the military and private jet companies. This shows our commitment to the region,” says Samer Halawi, Inmarsat’s regional director, Middle East & Africa. Launched in April 2002, the Swift64 platform allows aircraft operators to offer passengers a host of services, including e-mail, SMS messaging, internet access, videoconferencing, surveillance/imagery capabilities and secure access to corporate networks. The service, which uses Inmarsat’s Global Area Network (GAN) platform and Inmarsat-3 satellites, offers inflight data transfer rates in the range of 64 k/bits/s. “Swift64 is a significant step towards extending high-bandwidth services to aircraft passengers, and gives a 27-fold performance increase over many PC data services available in aircrafts today,” comments Simon Tudge, marketing manager, aeronautical business, Inmarsat. More than 3500 aircrafts have ben upgraded to a Swift64 solution out a fleet of 5500 aircrafts using the standard Inmarsat Satcom (satellite communications) system. Making this upgrade involves some investment from the airline, as they need to install onboard servers linked to the satellite avionics, a local area network in the plane and inseat handsets, screens and access points for passenger laptops. However, there is a major cost saving from the fact that the Swift64 system can use the existing antenna on an aeroplane, which already accesses Inmarsat’s satellites for air traffic management communication. “The Swift64 platform uses existing aircraft antennae and satellite communication avionics to the maximum extent possible. Only a limited technology upgrade is neededm which in turn delivers an important cost benefit to the airline, government or business aircraft operator,” adds Tudge. Inmarsat offers two versions of Swift64, a packet data version and an ‘always on’ ISDN connection, which enables real time internet access. This ISDN version even allows for inflight videoconferencing, which has been done across the system numerous times, but it is a high end option, which is not really necessary for most popular applications, such as e-mail and internet access. Instead, the most popular web sites can be uploaded onto the aircraft at the gate, and then regular updates can be sent up to the plane. “Swift64 has the capability to do live internet, but it is difficult to actually stack up the numbers to offer full unlimited web browsing, especially when you look at what people are looking at… [as] there’s a lot of common type of information,” says Tudge. ||**||II|~|tudge_m.jpg|~|Simon Tudge of Inmarsat|~|The Inmarsat service is scheduled to be enhanced soon with the launch of the Inmarsat I-4 satellite system, which will allow the company to roll out its high-speed Broadband Global Area Network (B-GAN). When airlines gain access to the system in 2006, they will be able to offer passengers data transfer rates of up to 432 k/bits/s with broadband internet access, satellite TV and mobile multimedia services. However, while Inmarsat controls and runs the satellites used for the communications, it does not offer applications for use inflight. Instead, these systems come from solutions providers, such as Tenzing or ARINC, which is currently working with Jetlab to roll out SMS and e-mail services on Emirates Airline’s long-haul aircraft. So far, the system has been installed on the carrier’s recently introduced Airbus A340-500s, and it should be implemented on the rest of the long-haul fleet by the end of the year. Alongside installing a passenger e-mail system, airlines also need to work out how to charge passengers for the service. There are a number of different options, such as charging per e-mail or increasing the ticket price to cover the system, but the industry is generally heading towards charging an additional flat fee. “This sits comfortably with passengers, as they know what they are going to pay,” comments Tudge. The service is also likely to become more affordable for passengers, as its use spreads throughout the industry. “The pricing on American flight routes ranges from US $15 to $20 for the flight duration or priced on data transfer. In 2004, the pricing will mature as more people use internet and e-mail services while flying,” predicts Nigel Rhodes, regional sales director, Europe & Middle East for Tenzing. “Even if just two to three passengers use the service on a single flight, we can call it profitable as over 100 million passengers per year fly through just the US flight route. So, if just 5% or 6% of these total passengers use the service, we can expect revenues in tens of millions of dollars from one region alone, ” he adds. However, inflight internet access need not only be used for passenger e-mail. For instance, the ability to report faults inflight means that the necessary part can be waiting at the airport when the plane lands, which will greatly cut repair time. This is just one of a host of different applications, ranging from weather reporting to healthcare (see p. 36), that are being developed that make use of the Inmarsat system. “Some of the things Swift64 is being used for today, we wouldn’t have thought of 18 months,” says Tudge “But when you give smart people smart tools, smart things happen.” ||**||

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