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Choosing the Right Data Router for Inflight Connectivity

NBAA's Connectivity Subcommittee has helpful tips for choosing a router for your business aircraft.

Dec. 4, 2017

As inflight connectivity becomes nearly indispensable to business aircraft passengers, more attention is being focused on routers, the gateways between devices and the internet.

What most people know about routers comes from their in-home or office Wi-Fi experiences. In those environments, a $300 router will deliver all the capability needed for the most sophisticated setup. Getting the same high-end functionality on an aircraft will cost far more, says Joe Spring, avionics sales manager for StandardAero and a member of the NBAA Maintenance Committee’s Connectivity Subcommittee.

“It’s surprising how often we have conversations with operators that think you can go to your local home electronics big-box store and grab a router off the shelf for an aircraft, just like you would for your home or office,” says Spring. “If we go to a dedicated aviation supplier, that router is going to cost $60,000 to $70,000.”

Why are inflight routers so expensive? The reasons are simple: aircraft equipment must be designed, manufactured and certified to operate in the harsh environments associated with flight, and suppliers invest heavily in their pursuit of reliability and weight savings – two things that operators demand. Aviation-specific routers also perform many critical functions beyond providing Wi-Fi.

“I could have a minor maintenance issue, and assuming it’s safe to dispatch the aircraft, repairs could be put off until the next station,” Spring says. “But if the onboard internet service is not working, we’re not going.” Passenger expectations have changed that much.

Choosing an aviation router is a matter of answering some questions and prioritizing desired functions.

For instance, not all routers will support multiple networks – a useful feature for giving certain groups, such as VIPs, dedicated access.

Technology changes have rendered obsolete many of the routers that were installed years ago. Older models may not be able to interface with new cabin technology.

Routers also can affect throughput rates, a key factor in ensuring you are getting what you pay for with a high-end connectivity service provider. Throughput rates also dictate your ability to link up all the devices you want connected.

Supporting voice calls is another important function. The ability to use personal cell phones is a big step up from needing onboard handsets, but the ability to handle voice-over-IP calls must be factored in, Spring notes. Does the router you are considering have voice channel capabilities? How many calls can you make at one time? Both the router and the connectivity service provider you choose will drive this capacity, along with other value-added features you can select.

Another factor driving sales of new routers is technology’s rapid evolution. Router technology has made an enormous leap in the last several years. These technology changes have rendered obsolete many of the routers that were installed years ago. Older models may not be able to interface with the new cabin-entertainment technology, streaming audio/video, high-definition video, and even flight deck connectivity and information.

The NBAA Connectivity Subcommittee is aware of the inflight connectivity challenges operators face, and it is working on some tools, including a list of questions to ask when contemplating a router purchase, covering everything from what is currently on the aircraft and where the aircraft flies to what passengers and the crew want to do onboard. The list, along with other information, such as a set of connectivity FAQs, is posted on NBAA’s website.

For more information on connectivity resources, visit www.nbaa.org/connectivity.

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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Business Aviation Insider. Download the magazine app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.