Verizon will keep MagnaStar on air for another year

 - April 30, 2007, 7:18 AM

It’s not exactly a call from the governor, but it still qualifies as a reprieve of sorts. Verizon Airfone has sent letters to customers informing them that the MagnaStar air-to-ground phone service will stay on the air at least until the end of next year.

The service extension provides a welcome respite for customers who were told earlier that Verizon would pull the plug on the MagnaStar service on December 31 of this year. Now, business aircraft operators flying with MagnaStar gear have an extra 12 months–until Dec. 31, 2008–to explore alternatives.

For many, the obvious choice will involve upgrading their current hardware to Iridium or Inmarsat satcom equipment. Both services offer global coverage. Iridium, which uses a network of 64 cross-linked satellites, is truly global while Inmarsat has coverage gaps at the poles.

Iridium costs less, with per-minute charges of around $1.50 compared with about $7 on average for Inmarsat’s most popular aeronautical services. But Inmarsat also offers high-speed data capability for Web surfing and e-mail aloft, features not available with the Iridium service.

Verizon Airfone exited the airline satcom market last year after AirCell bought that segment of frequency spectrum for its upcoming aeronautical broadband service, which is planned to start early next year. Verizon originally told customers it would terminate the MagnaStar service last fall before extending the deadline late last year and then again last month.

No reason was given for the most recent extension. Industry observers last month had few guesses about why Verizon continues to drag out the service shutoff date. “I have no idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it,” commented one satcom industry veteran. “I’m sure their customers aren’t very happy with the situation.”

Under its spectrum agreement with the FCC, Verizon must exit the air-to-ground communications market in 2010. That means a further reprieve for MagnaStar remains a possibility, although it would be a short-lived extension. About 4,100 business aircraft fly with the MagnaStar equipment.

Sellers of Iridium satcom hardware have been offering special deals for MagnaStar users, and some business aircraft operators have made the switch. But many more appear to be waiting until Verizon shuts off MagnaStar before deciding what new satphone equipment to buy. “There are still a lot of MagnaStar customers who are on the fence,” said a spokesman for AirCell, a seller of Iridium satcom hardware.

A Honeywell engineer said one of the biggest headaches for owners of MagnaStar equipment centers on finding a way to keep an airplane’s existing handsets while replacing other hardware.