SmartSky eyes spectrum options for 4G LTE network

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SmartSky Networks, the company that plans to launch a new air-to-ground (ATG) network in the US, is “looking at anything going forward that relates to air-to-ground [spectrum] or could be used for ATG”, including ATG in the Ku-band that may come up for auction, chairman and CEO Haynes Griffin tells RGN.

To date, the company has remained secretive about what spectrum it will use for its planned 4G LTE service, leading the industry to surmise that SmartSky is seeking to cobble together potentially noisy unlicensed spectrum and/or participate in the auction of ATG as a secondary service in the Ku-band primarily used for satellite communications. While it may very well intend to do either or both, we asked Griffin if SmartSky has the funding it would need to participate in a forthcoming auction, and snag a license?

Ever diplomatic, Griffin said, “Let me say we obviously wouldn’t go into an auction without having both on the one hand, a clear understanding of the value of what we would be trying to purchase, but on the other, a clear access to funding to complete any transaction that we were undertaking. So I think both of those go hand in hand.”

SmartSky’s would-be competitor Gogo clearly sees value in securing at least one license at auction. In a recent filing with the FCC, Gogo recounted how it met with the commission’s Wireless Bureau to discuss its filings in the so-called Air-Ground Mobile Broadband Service (AGMBS) proceeding. “In the meeting, Gogo stated its desire for additional spectrum and urged expeditious action on the AGMBS proceeding. Consistent with its filings, Gogo explained that the public interest would be served best by dividing the proposed 500 MHz band into four nationwide 125 MHz licenses. A single 125 MHz license would provide sufficient capacity for a licensee to offer a robust service into the foreseeable future,” said Gogo in the filing.

“Specifically, with a 125 MHz license, Gogo conservatively estimates that each ground station could support forward link capacity of 400 Mbps. This 400 Mbps capacity translates into 480 standard definition YouTube videos streamed simultaneously. At an estimated 30% penetration rate and an average of 160 passengers per aircraft, this would equate to sufficient capacity to serve 10 aircraft per ground station,” added Gogo.

SmartSky hasn’t weighed into the debate at the FCC, and SmartSky’s Griffin tells RGN he has not yet heard about a timeframe for such an auction. Insiders say a decision could drop any day.

What he can tell us, however, is that SmartSky is progressing in its plan to launch the first 4G LTE inflight connectivity network in the US. “We continue to make good progress along our development timeline. We’ve completed the engineering on the equipment and will begin rolling out the test network next year with a goal to standing up the beta test network by the end of the year, and then, with the full nationwide rollout to follow on the heels of that in 2016,” says Griffin, stressing that SmartSky’s “plan is to have a complete continental US rollout at launch”.

When the SmartSky CEO refers to equipment he is referring to both the aircraft antenna and the ground infrastructure required to support the service. “We will have sites across the country. We have completed the preliminary site design for the network and are beginning to nail down specific site locations all over the country.”

SmartSky intends to launch with about 250 sites. “Looking through the eyes of the cellular industry, which is our background,” says Griffin, “it’s not many at all. It’s a small number, highly capital efficient and very compact in an operational sense. Most sites are owned by third parties so we will – for the physical infrastructure – be leasing space on existing cell sites around the country…as is done in the cellular industry.”

But will SmartSky draw on its patents for a mesh network? “The patents cover a great and robust range of things, some of which we will be implementing initially, and others which we will be evolving towards. So it’s hard to be specific about any one component.” Some of SmartSky’s patents describe a mesh network that would stretch across the Atlantic, and use both ships and aircraft to create a sort of connectivity chain. Griffin says the company doesn’t plan to try to cover the Atlantic in the near term, and compete with satellite-supported inflight connectivity, but after “first focusing on getting the fundamentals in place for the US operation”, it will “also look at other geographies in the world where they would benefit from our same technology”. He confirmed that Canada is a possibility.

A source tells RGN that SmartSky is already looking at defending some of its patents and is mulling litigation. Responding to our question about whether SmartSky will pursue any litigation, Griffin says, “Well, we do have a robust portfolio of granted and pending patents. We are focused at the moment on the rollout of our network, and don’t believe we need to depend on our patent portfolio to be successful in the marketplace, although I will acknowledge that the portfolio has given us comfort regarding our ability to see the goal of rolling out the network….but separate from that, we wouldn’t comment on any litigation related matters.”

AT&T’s decision to do a U-turn on its own plans to launch a 4G LTE inflight connectivity service in the US has not turned SmartSky off of entering the market itself. “We were comfortable with our position in the market relative to what AT&T was proposing. This is a market that can readily support multiple service providers and AT&T, I think, I take them at their word that since their original announcement about [entering] the ATG market, they had developed at least two major initiatives that were taking their operational as well as regulatory attention and that they felt that they needed to concentrate on those two major initiatives,” says Griffin, adding that SmartSky is “convinced that we will find great success in the marketplace.”

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