How does Business Jet WiFi Work? – In-Flight Wifi Explained.
Get your private jet connected – what are the current inflight Wi-Fi options?
Range, cost, and “apron presence” are some of the traditionally essential aspects when choosing a business jet. But lately, another consideration has grown in importance: Inflight Wi-Fi and connectivity. As the constant connection to pretty much, everything via the internet becomes a standard expectation. Passengers demand the same level of connectivity when in the air, especially if they are sitting in a multimillion-dollar private aircraft.
What is Wi-Fi speed, and how much do I need?
Most internet providers now offer unlimited amounts of data usage for the home or office. Although on mobile phones there are still limits, the trend goes to remove those limits and let the customer use as much internet as they want. In the air, that is not yet the case. Almost all options are subscription-based and have either a limit on the included data or even charge per megabyte (Mb) used. To have a comparison, loading a website should consume between 1-5 Mb. Streaming a YouTube video, depending on the length, can be 700 Mb or more. Then there’s the speed at which this data loads. On average, the speed at home and in the office ranges between 15 Mbps (if the connection is wireless) and 100 Mbps (if wired).
With those numbers in mind, you can then think about your needs and how you plan to use internet on-board. Simple WhatsApp texting or just replying to emails might be enough for the business executive, while a family of 4 might want access to Netflix and YouTube and thus requires much more data. You should also take into consideration how many passengers (or even crew members) plan on using the connection, as the available speed and data must be shared among all on board.
Not long ago, all you could do on-board was send and receive tiny amounts of data at slow speeds. Now, almost every week, we see new announcements and speed limits crushed. This means that when choosing a connectivity option, the rapid development of technology must be weighed as well.
Lastly, but quite important, is the aircraft. Different technology uses different hardware, some quite large and heavy. The necessary antennas and equipment come in different sizes and shapes, are placed in different parts of the plane, and can impact the obtained internet speed. Certain connectivity solutions will simply not fit into a light jet, for example. Another consideration. If your aircraft is a smaller jet, or if you simply never fly outside of the US, do you really need to consider systems that cover flights over the oceans?
The options – satellite or ground-based systems
When looking into connectivity solutions, you will hear a lot about popular of brands. Gogo Business Aviation, Honeywell, and Satcom Direct are some of the most popular brands. They offer different solutions, but the main classes are satellite or ground-based solutions. Satellite is a newer and more expensive system. Here, aircraft usually share the infrastructure with fewer users. On the other side are the air-to-ground (ATG) systems. They use conventional cell towers on the ground, which makes the system cheaper but also more “crowded.” Geographically speaking, satellite systems work globally, except in the polar regions. ATG systems are practically only available in the continental USA and small parts of southern Canada. Within those two categories, we have further specific technologies:
- Ku-band: Although older, this system offers up to 4 Mbps, with newer versions going even up to 18 Mbps. The installation costs are rather high; above 400k USD are not unusual.
- Ka-band: This is the newest and most expensive satellite solutions, with speeds up to 33 Mbps. Typically, this service is offered as a subscription with a data cap, much like cellular phone internet service, which can cost up to 30k USD per month and with an installation cost of up to 800k USD. Due to the larger size of equipment, this system can only be installed on large-cabin jets.
- L-Band: The oldest satellite system, offers relatively lower speeds (enough for checking emails) and usually, is charged per Mb used.
- SwiftBroadband (SBB): The SBB system comes in 3 different sizes. With the bigger one, the coverage will be much better, but it won’t fit into a smaller jet. Due to the flexibility, this subscription-based system is one of the most popular solutions currently available.
- Iridium: This is a more basic service, offering only voice and text communication.
For smaller planes, there are two popular options; the Iridium Go option (hardware from 600 USD, subscriptions from 50 USD per month) and the BendixKing Aerowave (installation cost of approx. 25k USD and time packages available at different prices).
Considering the future developments, two systems that have not been launched yet but look promising are:
- Iridium Certus: The Certus system will be available from 2020 on. It will be compatible with older hardware for lower speeds, while the higher speeds (up to 1.4 Mbps) do need an upgrade. It can be fitted into smaller jets, and the coverage will be global.
- European Aviation Network (EAN) for EU + UK, Norway, and Switzerland. Use a mix of ATG and satellite and ground towers. Speeds are not yet known and expected to launch in 2020 for BizAv, earlier for commercial aviation.
Many providers exist for ATG connectivity, but the technological principle is pretty much the same among them. Gogo Business Aviation is the market leader, with SmartSky Networks also being a popular option. Speeds up to 3.1 Mbps are reachable, but Gogo is expecting to launch 5G services already in 2021, which should bring quite a boost to those speeds.
Is your data safe while flying?
The answer is easy: it depends. Mostly, it depends on the safety nets that you are using on the ground. In this aspect, inflight Wi-Fi is not much different from terrestrial usage. Just like on the ground, many points of entry for a malicious actor trying to access data exist. Internet providers will cover some, but most are dependent on the user.
If you are using a VPN, for example, you will be able to use it on-board as well. A common myth, however, remains a myth. Inflight Wi-Fi is never connected to the aircraft electronics, so no, a hacker cannot control your aircraft from the ground using your Wi-Fi. They can, however, try to access your data for other reasons. Contrary to the average home internet user, the bizjet passenger is more prone to highly organized groups spying on industrial secrets than the scammer looking for a quick buck.
The benefits of having an aircraft with internet capacity are clear. Not only does it increase the value of your aircraft, but it also keeps you connected to the world and your office anytime. Some systems give the same experience as the internet on the ground, but they don’t come cheap. If there is a limited budget, speed will have to be sacrificed, maybe coverage too. Once your priorities are set, and the respective technology is understood, there will surely be an option that fits your business aircraft travel needs.