Aircell broadband coming to bizjets

 - October 1, 2008, 4:31 AM

Aircell’s air-to-ground broadband Internet service is poised for significant growth following the announcement that Delta Air Lines plans to equip its entire mainline fleet of 330 airplanes with hardware needed to access the service, as well as the news that Aircell is about to install the system in the first customer business jet.

The Aircell network operation center near Chicago is quiet for the time being, but it won’t be long before the room is a bustle of activity. AIN visited the facility last month to get an up-close look at the nerve center behind aviation’s first air-to-ground broadband Internet network.

On the day of our tour, a large computer monitor displayed seven green blips traversing the country between New York and California, representing the total number of airplanes accessing Aircell’s Gogo Internet service. The scene wasn’t particularly impressive. But these targets, overlaid on a Google Earth map of the U.S. and representing a minor percentage of the American Airlines fleet that has been so far equipped with Gogo hardware, are about to start multiplying. There will soon be dozens, and then hundreds, and maybe one day perhaps even thousands of tiny blips on the screen as more airlines and the first business jet customers gain access to the in-flight Internet service.

A live demonstration over central Wisconsin in a Falcon 20 that Aircell uses for network testing showed that the technology, based on the same EVDO standard as broadband-compatible cellphones, does indeed provide passengers with Internet
access at speeds they’d expect to experience on the ground with a DSL connection. The one potentially troubling aspect of the demo, however, was that no other airplanes were accessing this particular Aircell ground site during the test, meaning that the Falcon’s passengers had full access to an entire data pipe that is designed to be shared by hundreds of users simultaneously.

What would happen if more people logged onto the network in the same sector and simultaneously tried to send high-resolution photos, download mp3s and stream live HD video? The answer is that the connection speed for everyone in the sector would degrade, eventually slowing to a dial-up-like crawl.

Aircell says it can add capacity to the network as demand grows, and in fact already has a plan to keep the flow of data moving smoothly using cell-splitting techniques and by adding more towers on congested flight routes. Aircell also says it can limit data access by flagrant bandwidth hogs, something that might not sit well with high-
flying corporate multi-taskers. The company says it has also decided to prevent passengers–for the time being–from using voice-over-IP services such as Skype.

But focusing on the potential pitfalls of network congestion this early in the rollout of the Aircell service makes little sense. After all, only a small handful (15 airplanes) of American 767s are equipped for the Gogo service, and other airlines are just starting to install the equipment in their fleets. On the day AIN visited Aircell’s network operations center near Chicago O’Hare Airport, a mere 71 passengers were logged on to the service, each of them paying $12.95 for the privilege of doing so. That’s 71 people using a nationwide network designed to beam service anywhere over the continental U.S. above 10,000 feet.

Ninety-two strategically placed ground stations cover the entire lower 48 states, with overlap into the Atlantic and Pacific as well as the Gulf of Mexico. When one stops to consider that 11 million cellphone customers make calls each day in the greater Chicago area alone, it puts into perspective just how small a market segment Aircell is targeting–even if, as company executives predict, the service eventually grows to thousands of airplanes.    

“The wireless industry has spent billions of dollars on research and development for EVDO technology,” noted Mark Malosh, vice president of operations at Aircell. “We’re riding on the coattails of that research. By comparison, our network is minuscule.” Gogo uses EVDO Rev A technology modified for airborne use. This provides peak data rates of up to 3.1 megabits per second (Mbps) from the ground to the airplane and 1.8 Mbps in the other direction.

Business Jet Service
Accessing the Aircell service aboard a business jet will be somewhat more expensive than the tariff for coach airline passengers, but it will also be significantly less costly than some other in-flight Internet options such as Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband or Gulfstream’s Broad Band Multi Link services. Aircell is introducing two pricing plans for business aviation, both of which provide an always-available link to the broadband network. The first plan, for those who seek only e-mail access using a BlackBerry or other Wi-Fi PDA, is $895 a month. Faster access, at speeds averaging around 2 Mbps, will cost $1,995 per month.

Aircell broadband hardware is currently being installed aboard a customer Global Express, but it is a version of the hardware that was originally designed for the air transport market. The gear weighs 125 pounds and requires three fuselage-mounted antennas. Due to hit the market next spring is the business aviation version of the system, which links through Aircell’s Axxess cabin communication unit and weighs in at just 40 pounds. It requires the installation of two blade antennas, each mounted on the airplane’s belly and measuring about seven inches long. Total price for this system, including the Axxess unit with an internal two-channel Iridium satcom receiver, runs about $85,000 plus installation.

“The acceptance by airline passengers since the launch of Gogo in August has been phenomenal,” said Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein. “They’re using it for all the things you’d expect, including checking e-mail, video streaming and downloading mp3s.” Average user sessions have lasted more than three hours, he said, with each airline flight allowed to access an average of 1.2 gigabytes worth of data without slowing the network. If a certain airplane begins using more than its allotted share of data, engineers at the network operations center can limit features such as streaming video.

Aircell beat out Verizon and other would-be competitors by paying more than $31 million in an FCC auction two years ago for an exclusive slice of the air-to-ground frequency spectrum that allowed it to build the broadband network. Aircell broadband ground towers are co-located with existing cell sites, but they point up at the sky to provide coverage over a 250-mile radius area. In addition to adding more towers in the U.S. as demand dictates, Aircell also has approval to expand the service into Mexico and Canada. Besides American and Delta, Aircell has also inked an agreement with Virgin America and says it’s close to signing similar deals with other airlines.

Aircell built its network relatively quickly, completing the 92 towers in nine months. Some of them, the company noted, had to be hauled to the tops of mountains in the dead of winter on the backs of converted army tanks. A California wildfire destroyed one site not long after it had been built. That tower, noted Aircell’s Malosh, was rebuilt in two weeks. Since then, Aircell has been using a fleet of five airplanes–a pair of King Airs, a Learjet 35, a leased Falcon 2000 and the Falcon 20–to conduct more than 1,000 hours of live network testing.

Last month’s demonstration in the Falcon 20 put to rest any concerns that the Aircell broadband service isn’t up to the task of providing a user experience similar to accessing the Internet on the ground. Web pages like cnn.com and foxnews.com loaded quickly, VPN links worked without a hitch and even live video streaming through Netflix presented no challenge for the service. For a few minutes while flying near Green Bay connection to the network was lost, but a quick reset of the wireless LAN connection on the user’s computer solved the problem. Aircell engineers after the flight found no network anomalies, suggesting that the momentary loss of data might have been caused by a problem with the computer and not the ground network.