Battle hotting up for US air-to-ground inflight connectivity

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A Gogo Air to Ground inflight connectivity tower.
A Gogo Air to Ground inflight connectivity tower.

From being a one-horse race (Gogo) a few years ago, the US marketplace for air-to-ground (ATG) inflight connectivity is fast becoming more competitive with new players like SmartSky Networks, and perhaps even Google, throwing their hats into the ring.

Gogo currently rules the North American skies in terms of ATG inflight connectivity.

The company forged a good reputation with its air-to-ground (ATG) service over mainland US. This famously started after a barbecue in Texas in 1991, when company founder Jimmy Ray first sketched on a paper napkin his visionary idea for an affordable telephone system for private aircraft.

Gogo began as Aircell, providing analogue-based voice communications on private aircraft in North America via a unique partnership with cellular providers.

And in 2006 it was awarded the FCC’s exclusive Air-To-Ground (ATG) 3MHz broadband frequency license. This brought the challenges of designing, patenting, and deploying an uninterrupted network of ATG transmitters across the US.

In November 2012 there was another enhancement when the company announced that it had launched its ATG-4 connectivity technology on three airlines – Delta, US Airways and Virgin America.

Gogo’s ATG-4 technology is capable of delivering a peak speed of 9.8 Mbps, triple the peak speed of 3.1 Mbps enabled by the previous air-to-ground network.

But its next-generation ATG network, combined with Gogo’s proprietary aero antenna, in-cabin network and software platform will bring up to 30 times more bandwidth to an aircraft than the original ATG solution. Gogo says its next-generation ATG network will have peak network capacity of more than 100 Gbps.

The next-generation ATG network uses unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz band as well as the licensed spectrum from Gogo’s original ATG network to provide greater bandwidth and reliability.

It also leverages Gogo’s existing ATG network backhaul and infrastructure of more than 250 cell towers, plus a proprietary new antenna and modem, to produce peak speeds of more than 100 Mbps per aircraft.

It said in February that its next-gen ATG system will be commercially available later this year in North America and will be a “hot seller”.

SmartSky Networks logoBut snapping at Gogo’s heels is newcomer SmartSky Networks, which is getting closer to the full commercial roll-out of its 4G LTE-based air-to-ground (ATG) inflight connectivity service.

SmartSky partnered with Avidyne for the manufacture, certification and support of its air-to-ground wireless connectivity products. They have worked closely to develop specialised products for business aircraft, including airborne radios and antennas.

SmartSky says its patented 4G technology with beamforming and efficient air-to-ground network gives passengers an office-in-the-sky experience and operators a new, better way of managing their aircraft communications.

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It said its recent flight tests showed multi-Gigabytes per hour actual data, consistent throughput and actual peak speeds well in excess of 10 Mbps, with individually run speed tests showing high multi-Mbps bidirectional data rates.

SmartSky’s 4G LTE nationwide network includes secure data centres strategically located in California, Colorado and Virginia that are already operational.

SmartSky 4G LTE is due to go live across the US sometime in 2018 for business aviation operators.

But Gogo and SmartSky may not have the US ATG market all to themselves.

Google is said to be in talks to acquire Nokia Oyj’s airplane broadband business to offer in-flight high-speed inflight connectivity.

Nokia’s LTE A2G cellular-based system creates a direct link between an aircraft and the ground instead of bouncing the signal off of a satellite, enabling in-cabin high-speed internet services using Wi-Fi, according to its website.

Nokia’s technology could help Google offer an alternative to existing Wi-Fi on aircraft, talks are said to be advanced and an agreement may be reached soon, according to a report on Bloomberg.

Nokia is also one of the driving forces behind the European Aviation Network, which uses Nokia equipment in the base stations.

Deutsche Telekom and Nokia have adapted Nokia’s LTE base stations and Remote Radio Heads (RRH) to the frequency used for EAN and built a specific base station antenna to cover the sky.

The LTE ground network for EAN differs from “normal” LTE networks as it needs to work at speeds of up to 1,200 km/h, at cruising altitudes, requiring cells with up to a 150 km range. Nokia said it will manage the operations for this advanced network from its global delivery centre in Romania.

So Nokia is already well versed in ATG technology, and Google is keen to find new ways to spread its mobile connectivity, as its search engine, YouTube and the ads they carry are said to generate almost 90 percent of the company’s revenue.

In terms of ATG inflight connectivity, we have an interesting couple of years ahead.

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