GA pilots will have affordable Wi-Fi in their airplanes within about three years and much greater access to space-based services thanks to a $3 billion investment by a Virginia company. Starting in April, Iridium will launch the first of 72 new communications satellites that will, among other things, increase the speed of its Internet signals fiftyfold. The full constellation of satellites will be in a 495-mile polar orbit by 2017 giving worldwide coverage for a host of communications services, including global Internet at speeds up to 1.4 mbs. CEO Matt Desch said that while that is slow by broadband standards, it’s exponentially faster than the satellite services currently available and the increased capacity of the satellites will allow affordable onboard Wi-Fi at speeds (likely around 100 kbs) useable by phones, tablets and computers. He said the signal availability will allow hardware makers to create a portable device that will sit on the glare shield (or a picnic blanket on top of a mountain) and work as an Internet hotspot. “That will do an awful lot for the GA pilot,” said Desch. He said text, data, tracking and other real-time services will also be possible and developers will have a field day with the new capabilities.
GA will be a tiny user of the overall service, which is fundamental to a new aircraft tracking system that will ensure aircraft can’t go missing. Iridium has partnered with Nav Canada to create the tracking system, which is being sold to air traffic services providers all over the world. The FAA hasn’t yet committed to the system, which will allow controllers to keep tabs on any aircraft, anywhere in the world. That means the spacing for aircraft flying over areas not covered by radar can be dramatically reduced and more direct routes can be flown. Desch said the FAA is pondering participation and he hopes the agency is ready when the satellites are. He said the biggest part of Iridium’s business is “asset tracking” for companies keeping an eye on their goods. Desch said he wanted to be sure GA can make use of the system because of his own strong links. He’s a TBM 700 owner-pilot and an AOPA board member. “The GA market is very important to me.”