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SKYLink passenger broadband traffic soars

25th March 2009 - 18:59 GMT | by The Shephard News Team

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Traffic on the SKYLink Ku-band satellite broadband service for business jets grew by more than 40 per cent this February compared with the same period 12 months ago.

Offering megabit data rates over much of the northern hemisphere westwards from Europe to Asia, SKYLink is offered by ARINC, with equipment distribution and support by Rockwell Collins. “In February we logged 82,000 minutes of usage compared with 57,000 in the same month last year,” says Bob Thompson, ARINC senior director for satellite services. That’s a 44 per cent increase in traffic while the installed fleet grew 20 per cent. Average usage per aircraft was 17 hours in the month.”  

The SKYLink aircraft equipment fit, along with satellite capacity and ground network services, is supplied by California’s ViaSat, which recently set up in competition to the ARINC service under the brand name Yonder. 

“We’re comfortable with that,” says Thompson. “We knew it was coming, and even though we compete against each other, ViaSat continues to be very correct in giving us the support that we need. But for all the technical infrastructure has much in common, there will be a big difference between the SKYLink and Yonder services.”

Quality of service will be the differentiator, says Thompson. “I sign service-level agreements guaranteeing certain data rates to my customers. I understand that ViaSat will not do that – they are offering a best-effort, shared network. We offer seamless handoffs from one Ku-band satellite to another, and from to Ku-band to the Inmarsat L-band system. We’ve had four years in which to develop the applications our customers want. And we guarantee 98 per cent network availability and give service credits if we fall short. Ours is a premium service.”

Thompson can also lay claim to the world’s first and so far only corporate aviation Ku-band customer base. SKYLink installations have built up at a rate of about 25 a year and are due to pass a hundred aircraft next month, he says. Originally made up entirely of big Gulfstreams, the fleet will soon include a Boeing BBJ and a Bombardier Challenger 604 as well as a Cessna Citation X.

The supplemental type certification work for the three additional was carried out by ARINC’s own Colorado Springs maintenance and repair facility. “The 604 is being delivered this week, and the BBJ installation will take place next month for delivery to the operator in June-July.”

The BBJ will have a unique capability, according to Thompson. SKYLink offers full integration with Inmarsat’s worldwide Swift 64 64kbit/sec service and about 35 per cent of the fleet has dual installations. “The BBJ will be the first installation to integrate SKYLink with Inmarsat’s new worldwide 432kbit/sec SwiftBroadband service,” he says. “The operator will be able to move seamlessly to SwiftBroadband when the aircraft reaches the limits of SKYLink coverage.” 
 
Eighty per cent of SKYLink’s customer’s are based in North America, including Mexico, with 15 per cent in the European Union and the rest in Asia. Prime applications are voice and high speed access to corporate networks. “All of our installations are WiFi-capable, allowing travelling senior executives to make Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) calls with their BlackBerries,” says Thompson. “We also spend a lot of time with IT departments to set up the aircraft as a remote node on the corporate intranet, with all their security and applications in place. As a result, the execs feel as if they are sitting in a remote office when they are on board.”

SKYLink is supported by an artful patchwork of satellite service agreements. Thompson has leases on a full transponder on the SES Americom AMC-6 satellite over North America and on Telesat T14 over the North Atlantic. Coverage in Europe, the Caribbean and the North Pacific is provided respectively by subscriptions to services from third parties, including ViaSat, on Eutelsat’s Atlantic Bird 2, SES Americom’s AMC-21 and SAT-GE’s GE-23. 

“On any given day 65-70 per cent of all our traffic is over North America, so we need a full transponder to guarantee data rates,” explains Thompson. “On the North Atlantic, with its lower number of flights, half a transponder is sufficient. Our ability to work with all of these disparate networks is one of our strengths – we can interconnect via the global ARINC ground network and then easily backhaul the traffic to the company’s 24x7 network operations centre, which is set up to manage the air-to-ground operational messaging of around 10,000 airliners and other aircraft every day.”

Thompson is watchful about the effects of the recession on the SKYLink business. “Of our one hundred aircraft installed, around 85 are receiving service right now,” he concedes. “In the past year six customers have shut down flight departments and sold or tried to sell their aircraft. I think that in the next six months we could feel further effects. That’s why we’re expanding our base of aircraft types, to try to make up for potential losses.”

He is also pinning his hopes on the relationship with Rockwell Collins that was sealed at the end of 2007. “They have brought their global product support team to bear, which keeps our customers very happy in terms of equipment serviceability,” he says. “And they are helping to open doors with the business jet manufacturers. They’ll be bidding soon in response to a request for proposals from Bombardier, and they have been working with Dassault to get some installations on to Falcons.”

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