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Jet Setting With Broadband

Come fly with me and surf the Internet while you're at it? Adding new meaning to high-speed connections, communications firm Arinc is rolling out two-way satellite broadband service for business aircraft.

Under a license granted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Annapolis, Md.-based company's SkyLink can service up to 1,000 private aircraft over the continental United States. Arinc anticipates the service will be available on North Atlantic routes and in Europe by next year.

SkyLink offers Internet access, e-mail, corporate intranet access, in-flight videoconferencing and Voice over IP as an option. Gulfstream, which has flight-tested SkyLink on its aircraft since 2003, purchased the first 15 sets of the avionics to fill existing customer orders, and it plans to make it standard equipment on a number of its jets.

Bob Thompson, senior director of satellite services at Arinc, said the company originally planned to develop VoIP as a near-term goal after first rolling out the broadband service. Then a customer came in with a Cisco router and wanted it installed.

"Twenty minutes later, we had it up and running," he said.

Arinc began developing the SkyLink system in the late 1990s as part of a plan to put the service into commercial airlines. When cost concerns cooled airlines' interest, Thompson said the company decided to focus on business jets.

According to Thompson, the SkyLink system can be expanded to handle commercial airline capacity, but the company is waiting to see if they want to go down that road.

In December, the FCC rolled out several new proposals for ground-to-air communications, including the in-flight use of cell phones and broadband Internet connections.

"[In-flight] broadband connections are being challenged by 802.11 and other wireless phone services," Thompson said. "They require less capacity and aren't as expensive."

Arinc will be testing cell phone service on an unnamed European commercial airliner this summer, and hopes for regulatory approval by the end of the year.

The company's private jet service is delivered via a Ku-band satellite operated by SkyLink partner and investor SES Americom.

"It's the same satellites used by direct-to-home television, and most are continental in coverage," Thompson said. Arinc's U.S. system requires only one ground station in Carlsbad, N.M.

The SkyLink avionics package from ViaSat, which includes the transceiver, antenna and antenna control unit, weighs fewer than 40 pounds. Once the equipment is installed, broadband service is distributed in the aircraft through either a wired or wireless network.

"The award of the SkyLink FCC license allows the commercial launch... to roll forward immediately," Dave Poltorak, Arinc's vice president for business aviation services, said in a statement. "Our launch customer, Gulfstream, has already logged more than 700 hours of successful flight with the experimental SkyLink service on board."