To date, the trouble with cabin Wi-Fi systems has been two-fold: The hardware and data cost can be way too expensive for the market’s lower end, plus bandwidth issues generally make them too lousy to be useful when compared to ground-based web surfing.
We’ll cut to the chase and say up front that BendixKing’s AeroWave 100 system succeeds in addressing the price thing, but doesn’t quite conquer the bandwidth limitations. But compared to other systems we’ve used, we think it represents serious progress from an installation and cost perspective.
We recently went flying with the AeroWave 100 installed in a Beechcraft Bonanza to see just what it can and cannot do.
The backbone of the AeroWave 100 system is Inmarsat’s satellite communications network. Inmarsat is hardly a newcomer to the communications world. It has been a standard in maritime operations for more than 35 years and was set up by the IMO (International Maritime Organization) as a distress and communications network. And that network has grown.
Inmarsat owns and operates three constellations of communication satellites and a total of 12 spacecraft. Its satellites fly in geosynchronous orbit and are positioned in nine orbital locations. As for proven reliability, applications speak for themselves.Inmarsat is used by major airlines and was actually the first provider to meet ICAO global communications standards.
The BendixKing AeroWave has its roots in the original Aspire line that Honeywell produced for business jet applications. But unlike the Aspire, the AeroWave is focused at the high-end piston single, twin and small turbine aircraft market.
As part of a recent agreement with Inmarsat (an estimated $2.8 billion shot in the arm for Honeywell), the company is exclusively developing, manufacturing and distributing the hardware for cabin connection with Inmarsat’s Global Xpress network. We’re talking airline, bizjet and military applications. The AeroWave 100 is currently offered as an option in Pilatus PC-12NG turboprop singles, in addition to some Cessna Citation business jets.
But doing an aftermarket satcom retrofit in a business jet is much different than installing one in a Beech Baron, for example. In fact, a Baron was used for earning the original STC for the AeroWave 100 HDU with the Active LGA antenna. Speaking of STC approvals, the AML (approved model list) is growing, to include a variety of piston singles, twins, turboprops and jets.
The basic AeroWave 100 system is $24,995 with full installation kits—a price point we think hits the owner-flown high-end piston twin and turboprop sweet spot. While that’s hardly inexpensive, consider Gogo’s entry-level ATG 1000 cabin internet and voice system (previously AirCell), which starts at $35,000. It requires a more complex installation, including interface with an AHARS and larger antennas.
One way BendixKing keeps the AeroWave’s installation costs under control is by using a small L-band low-gain GPS/Inmarsat antenna, which is appropriate for smaller airframes. It’s essentially the same footprint as most common GPS antennas and is mounted on the top of the airframe. System performance is highly dependent on the location of the antenna. Shadowing from major areas of structure will create blind spots in reception, depending on the position of the satellites.
The AeroWave HDU (high speed data unit) is an 8.8-pound remote processor that measures 14.88 by 2.43 by 7.81 inches. It trickles down from the Aspire line, evident by its large footprint. If the HDU is installed outside of a pressure vessel or in an unpressurized aircraft, it requires forced air cooling. The other major system component is a Bias-T module, which is comprised of a power injector, a 48-channel GPS receiver, amplifiers, multiplexer and demultiplexer. The primary purpose of the GPS engine is to supply the system with course and groundspeed data. There is also an external satcom configuration module (ESCM), which contains SIM cards required to access the Inmarsat SBB network.
While installation downtime will depend on the complexity of the airframe, BendixKing’s Jeff Kauffman told us installations in non-pressurized piston aircraft can easily be accomplished in significantly less than one week.
As for performance, Kauffman made it clear that the system is intended for texting (using iOS and Android devices), emailing (including smaller file attachments), smartphone apps and basic web browsing. It’s not appropriate for video streaming or big graphics. We’re talking about a data rate capability of up to 200 kbps.
“Think of using this system as if you’re in a Starbucks cafe and connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. You don’t have GSM connectivity for SMS messaging, but you’ll have basic connectivity,” Kaufman explained.
As for joining the AeroWave, there are options, including BendixKing’s provided router, which works for data only. You can also use a carry-on, off-the-shelf router for data connectivity. But for using Inmarsat’s high-quality voice network, the system requires the permanently installed AeroWave modem with a voice channel. This enables you to make and receive phone calls with your smartphone. Dial as you would on the ground, in familiar 1-plus-area code format. You can make and receive international calls, too.
In our trials, we found the system’s voice quality to be quite good at lower altitudes—no drop-out, interference or modulation issues. We connected via wireless through BendixKing’s KMA30 Bluetooth audio panel. Don’t expect GSM-like quality over the system’s voice channel, but we think it betters most satellite phones we’ve used.
The Inmarsat network has four satellites positioned for around-the-world coverage. In the U.S., there are some limitations in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, including service voids when flying oceanic routes. There are no altitude or speed limitations, however, which means you can use the system on the ground.
Simple Fixed Pricing
The airtime subscription plans are fixed at $40 per hour for all of the data you can use. The subscriptions are prepaid at $1999 for a 50-hour block of data.
For certain, this is real money and operators will need to decide if the mission can support the expense, in addition to the hardware, of course. By the time the dust settles, an installation well north of $35,000 won’t be out of the ordinary for many aircraft. There are some alternatives, including portable solutions. We covered them in the December 2014 issue of Aviation Consumer.
To recap, we found that Globalstar’s semi-portable Sat-Fi system has fast data speeds, but it just didn’t work well enough to be useful in flight. Since that review, the company received an STC approval for an external antenna and we’re planning another performance trial.
We also tried the Iridium Go, but found it was hobbled by pricey data plans. Plus, its slow data performance limits the system to small emails.
As for BendixKing’s AeroWave 100, we think the system worked well enough in our flight trial to consider it for missions needing basic internet and high-quality voice capability. For lesser aircraft and for basic text messaging, we favor the $400 DeLorme inReach satellite communicator and tracking device, which was recently acquired by Garmin.