Wi-Fi-ready BlackBerry links through data satcom

 - November 28, 2007, 11:43 AM

BlackBerry-starved executives who go into cold sweats anytime they have to shut off their devices take heart. Research In Motion, the Canadian company that makes the ubiquitous e-mail fetcher, has introduced Wi-Fi-capable versions of the BlackBerry that satcom installers say will work on airplanes fitted with high-speed-data terminals and wireless access points.

Hoping to cash in on the release two months ago of the first wireless-enabled BlackBerry models for North America, ABC Completions in Montreal has gone so far as to trademark the name “AirBerry.” The company has begun offering satcom hardware options that it says will allow the devices to synch with onboard satcom equipment with a minimum of fuss. “We’ve come up with a solution that is completely seamless for the end user, whether it be the executive in the back or the pilots up front,” said ABC Completions president Gary Nash. “Once the satcom system has been installed, passengers simply switch their BlackBerry on and the device automatically connects.”

The cost per e-mail, said Nash, is around $.10 to $.50 depending on message size. ABC Completions worked with satcom maker EMS Satcom to design an AirBerry hardware package that connects through the mobile packet data services offered through Inmarsat’s Swift64 and SwiftBroadband links. System components include a high-speed-data satcom terminal, wireless router and fuselage- or tail-mounted antenna. The total price to upgrade a business jet that already has a voice-only satcom system on board is about $200,000, Nash said, with downtime averaging four days.

Midcoast Aviation is offering a similar upgrade package, which the company said it has provided in a Gulfstream G450 and two Bombardier Global Expresses. Midcoast’s BlackBerry connection option also requires minimum user interaction but, unlike the solution from ABC Completions, it requires plugging the BlackBerry into an onboard pen-tablet computer that serves as the interface between the handheld device and the high-speed data satcom system. Once connected, the user can send and receive e-mail and synchronize contacts, calendars and tasks as if he were on the ground.
“Any aircraft with an existing satcom system can be upgraded to provide high-speed-data service to enable this solution,” said Rodger Renaud, Midcoast senior vice president for completions. “No STC is required.”

BlackBerrys traditionally have connected to e-mail servers only through cellphone towers, meaning that after takeoff the devices no longer would work. The Wi-Fi-capable units that are just now hitting the consumer market automatically detect which type of network (GSM, EDGE or Wi-Fi) is present and establish the appropriate link. Users can also manually turn off the cellphone portion of the device, which installers recommend doing to prevent the BlackBerry from emitting potentially harmful signals while searching for cell towers.

ABC Completions plans to include one Wi-Fi BlackBerry with the installation and to sell additional units for around $500 each. Passengers who want to use their BlackBerry after takeoff must have an “unlocked” model–in other words, one not tied to a specific service provider such as AT&T or Verizon.

As the most successful PDA targeting corporate users, the BlackBerry succeeded as a breakthrough device in bringing to the mainstream two great business features: push e-mail and a full QWERTY keyboard. Push e-mail refers to an “always-on” connection to the mail server, meaning new messages appear instantly. This instantaneous connectivity led many users to dub the device the “CrackBerry,” for its addictive qualities. In fact, many executives report feeling uneasy when their BlackBerry isn’t within reach.

Although ABC Completions’ AirBerry concept is technically an always-on link, it doesn’t incur the same high per-minute usage charges as Web surfing using Swift64, Nash said. Operators who bond multiple channels and fly with the ISDN Swift64 link turned on all the time have wound up with monthly bills for $40,000 or more, he said. “Making this type of access inexpensive was a key consideration,” he said, adding that half a dozen business jet operators so far have shown interest in the AirBerry concept.