Reliable Aircraft Connectivity for Passengers – Appreciated or Expected?

Aircraft connectivity

Editor’s note: This article was originally penned by Svend H. Sørensen, Product Manager at GateHouse Telecom A/S. Sørensen explains the importance of adaptive SATCOM testing and application to deliver on the reliable aircraft connectivity portion of the ideal passenger experience.

We all know how frustrating it is to be in an area with poor 3G/4G coverage. When you cannot be sure if you’ll be able to access e-mails, listen to your favorite podcast, or binge watch your new favorite show on Netflix. We want to be connected at any place – even 10,000 meters above the Atlantic Ocean. Hence, users expect steady and reliable aircraft connectivity that seamlessly transitions from ground connectivity to satellite-enabled connectivity after take-off. Having such expectations were unthinkable just 10 years ago, but now this is commonplace.

Reliable on-demand aircraft connectivity is a great challenge when airborne without being able to fall back on terrestrial coverage and relying solely on satellite coverage. Satellite communication is challenged by different physical constraints: physical distance results in attenuation and delay, the signal is sensitive to rain and other weather fades, available bandwidth will have to be shared between numerous terminals. And switching traffic from one beam to another takes time.

Such challenges will have to be overcome partly by innovating satellite systems, which industry leaders are already tackling as a result of customer needs/expectations and a drastic increase in competition in the satellite market.

Building Adaptive SATCOM Applications

In order to achieve the goal of more innovative SATCOM for the sake of a superior customer experience, applications will need to adapt to some challenging conditions. There is a lot to be done as an application developer to ensure your applications are robust and resilient to impairments in a satellite system. Developers need to consider the complex characteristics of satellite links design and architecture in their application. They also must test and verify their application under different conditions to optimize stability, thereby attaining the expected passenger experience.

For test and verification under different situations, especially in the case of airborne services, utilizing tools for off-air testing is ideal. It’s both costly and time-consuming to fly around the world just to operate an application under different geographical, airspace congestion, and weather conditions. Not to mention it’s practically impossible to reproduce certain testing scenarios. For example, congestion can be reproduced by circling around a busy airport, but will it be permitted?

Next Steps for SATCOM Providers

To sum it up, there are two main areas of improvement if passengers are to be delivered the promise of a reliable SATCOM connected application in-flight. Satellite systems must introduce new innovative solutions to increase capacity and overcome some of the technical constraints. Secondly, applications must be hardened and more resilient to the very nature of a satellite-carried communication. The latter can applied through off-air testing in order to obtain a higher degree of maturity.

Access to connectivity and consumers’ digital dependence has moved way beyond appreciation today. It is expected and limitations are not accepted, as the everyday user does not know or care about the technical challenges pertaining to aircraft connectivity. Passenger experience comes down to how connection performance is living up to the expected quality and in this connectivity-dependent world of today, this might become the differentiating edge in the fiercely competitive aviation industry.