SmartSky gears up to begin testing new ATG service

There’s a new air-to-ground connectivity provider in town in the United States, its name is SmartSky, and it is promising 98.4 Mbps to the aircraft over a full 60 MHz of reused spectrum.

RGN interviewed SmartSky CEO Haynes Griffin extensively and on the record, as the company was in the process of installing its ATG hardware on a Cessna Citation Excel testbed aircraft.

Griffin — one of the founders of early cell provider Vanguard, bought out by AT&T in 1999 — has the telecoms chops for this kind of claim, and is working with exactly the kind of organisations you’d pick if you were trying to break into this already fragmented business. 

“From the cellular perspective,” Griffin tells RGN, “no-one would ever take a block of 60 MHz of spectrum that they were using on the ground and stop using it on the ground, so that they could use it in the air. As valuable as the service will be in the air, it’s a hundred times, if not a thousand times, more valuable on the ground. So what we have done in order to be able to arrange the use of this 60-MHz block in the air, is to figure out how to create a layer cake effect. So we are using our 60 MHz of spectrum in the air — which is the top layer of the cake — while leaving undisturbed the same 60 MHz of spectrum on the ground. This is a version of spectrum re-use, which is the Cold War capability that enables a cellular network to provide service, that is to say you take a single block of spectrum and re-use it over and over again in multiple places.” 

“We have a portfolio of sixteen granted patents and a number of other patent applications both domestic and international,” Griffin says. “These cover some of the unique network design and proprietary secret sauce that enables us to build our network on a basis that we can reuse spectrum in the air without interfering with the core use of that spectrum on the ground. This in turn enables us to have access to a 60-MHz block of spectrum, which gives us a big pipe and enables us to therefore bring, for the first time in the inflight aviation industry, a true 4G broadband experience.” 

Here is SmartSky’s story so far.

“We began our process in 2011, building on a patent application that we acquired at that time relating to providing an air to ground network,” Griffin tells RGN. “We put together our original team — it’s a group of very seasoned telecom executives — analysed the market and put together a plan.” 

“We then went to the traditional telecom resources to find and manufacture the radio, and had trouble finding a proper response. So we turned it up a notch and went to the aerospace industry, and found Harris Corporation, which is a primarily government and military contractor. They are building our radio and we are in the early stages of the test and demonstration flights right now.” 

The basic hardware doesn’t sound dissimilar to what Gogo already uses. “It is physically a radio in the aircraft which internally is connected to a wireless router for distribution of the signal inside the aircraft. Outside the aircraft the radio is attached to an antenna, and that antenna then connects to our nationwide network of cell sites that we are starting to deploy. Those cell sites in turn are connected to the Internet and to the worldwide telecom network,” Griffin outlines.

“The difference is a combination of our multiple proprietary and patented components,” Griffin says. “The current air to ground network primarily uses 3 MHz of spectrum, and we will use 60 MHz.” 

After four minutes of hedging around the usual ATG, satellite and cellular questions of peak speeds vs sustained speeds and latency, Griffin confirmed to RGN that the 10x promise is for Gogo’s ATG-4 service, which maxes out at 9.8 Mbps. Extrapolating, that’s a promise of 98.4 Mbps for the SmartSky system, which today seems almost astronomically fast. If SmartSky can deliver that — or even most of that — to the aircraft, it would seem to have a winner on its hands.

As to that, “we are going to have a demonstration of the system in the next couple of months,” Griffin promises. “At that point in time we will be providing a full detailed analysis of exactly how we make all this work. Until then we are not providing any detail about how we make it work. I will say we have a long list of partners of which we are very proud — Cessna, Duncan Aviation, Jet Aviation, Bombardier, Standard Aero and others — and all of these partners have had a full and detailed explanation of how it works, and they are all fully informed about it.” 

Precise details of the 60 MHz of the spectrum SmartSky will use are also to be revealed later, Griffin noted in what has become a common refrainAnd while early installations are aimed at the business aviation market, SmartSky is making no bones about having commercial aviation in its sights.

“Our initial network will be 255 sites. We expect to grow from there because we are scalable,” Griffin highlights. “We don’t have the constraint of self-interference — we can add sites in a very graceful, very surgically precise way. We’ll start with 255 and we’ll grow to 300 and we’ll grow beyond there.” 

Differentiating SmartSky from the satellite industry and from the obvious competitor in Gogo, Griffin tells RGN that there are practically no proximity issues with site location: “We can continue to fill in the network as needed.”

RGN did draw Griffin into some discussion of how that works. “It does use beam forming, and it’s beam forming that allows us to allocate a separate beam for each aircraft. You can imagine, on the one hand, the existing network would have a beam that’s like a broad searchlight, and it covers all the aircraft that are within that sector. We do our connectivity differently. Within that same piece of geography for us, we would assign separate beams to each aircraft. That’s one of the ways that we are able to have the level of connectivity that we have.” 

“The nature of our air-to-ground network is that it is completely scalable,” Griffin emphasises. “We’re going to start out with nationwide coverage, but just like when the cellular industry went to 2% penetration of the population to 130% of the population, they did that by adding additional sites, because the networks were scalable. In the very same way, our network is scalable, so as we move from our initial deployment of almost 20,000 beams and we find that we need additional capacity, then with great precision we can add that capacity in exactly the place we need it, at exactly the time we need it. We don’t have a ten year development cycle and we can react immediately and fill in the network to provide connectivity as needed, where needed and when needed.” 

Beams are split evenly between sites, with just under eighty beams per site, rather than being geographically concentrated by beam in the more populated areas of the Continental US.

In terms of the interior wireless access points, SmartSky is offering a list of approved devices rather than one vertically integrated product. “We’re agnostic as to manufacturer so long as they are an approved manufacturer through our process,” Griffin says. We don’t have integration concerns because we go through an acceptance process for the onboard router. That’s an integration, review and acceptance process to ensure we’re fully compatible. We have no question about that. The reason we did it this way is that we believe, number one, that our customers should have the flexibility and the capabilities of multiple router manufacturers because our customers will have different needs.”

“Secondly,” Griffin notes, “we recognise that we should focus on the things we do really well and better than anybody else, and that we should leave to the very capable partners that we have now accepted to do the job that they’re doing. That means that, for example, it will be very easy for our customers to have both air to ground and satellite connectivity, because they can select the wireless router that will enable both. In fact, we expect that many of our customers will do that — certainly those customers from the business aviation side that have satellite connectivity, we expect the predominant majority of those to also have air to ground connectivity. And of course the same thing is true on the commercial side.” 

Harkening enthusiastically to the idea of hybridisation, Griffin says “you could have, for example, ViaSat and SmartSky both, or other solutions and SmartSky, and this is what we expect to happen. We very much embrace the provision of satellite services. I think the vast majority of users that have satellite will also have our service. We see that as a great complementary relationship, and we look forward to that sort of partnership.” 

Griffin is also bullish on international expansion, given the numerous issues with national spectrum distribution. “Our layer cake technology will work on multiple spectrums in multiple geographies. Our radios are software defined as to frequencies, so that means our radios can operate on one frequency in the US and on a different frequency in Europe, and on a third frequency in Australia. So as we build our European network, for example, that will enable our European customers to use our network in Europe, use satellite over the water, and then come back in a roaming fashion and use our network again in the US.” 

“It’s about a 200km reach,” Griffin says of SmartSky’s overwater range.

RGN raised the issue of certification with Griffin — a problem that has holed many an inflight connectivity boat.

“We will of course, like all onboard avionics, require STCs from the FAA,” Griffin replies. “We don’t need any waivers or special permissions from anyone else.”

Griffin specifically stated that SmartSky does not require any additional permissions to operate from telecoms regulator the FCC, because of the layer cake technology that SmartSky uses. “We’ll be able to give you some more detail about that shortly,” Griffin promises, confirming that the company does not anticipate any issues with the commission.

If Griffin and SmartSky can deliver on their promises, they could revolutionise intracontinental connectivity. It should be noted that Gogo is also eyeing alternative ATG spectrum now that the timeline for a 14 GHz auction has moved way to the right.

Neither firm is yet giving up the spectrum goods.

Watch this space.

See our archive of SmartSky-related articles here.

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