Despite protests from Aircell, TrueNorth offers OpenCabin

 - November 24, 2009, 11:01 AM

A fight is brewing between TrueNorth Avionics of Ottawa, Canada, and Aircell, the creator of an air-to-ground broadband data network for aircraft, over a software application that lets TrueNorth and Aircell hardware link to each other.

The trouble started at the NBAA Convention in October when TrueNorth issued a press release announcing a new OpenCabin software application that would allow customers to interface their TrueNorth communications hardware with Aircell’s ATG-4000 broadband system. Aircell’s reaction to the news was to warn would-be users that their data service would be shut off and their hardware warranties voided if they tried to link into the network using the TrueNorth setup.

TrueNorth claims Aircell’s real objection to its connection method is that it allows broadband users to purchase an Aircell ATG-4000 system instead of the pricier ATG-5000 system, which was designed to interface with third-party hardware. “We’re just an Ethernet connection off the Aircell box,” said TrueNorth president Mark van Berkel. “It’s impossible for us to impact their network just by using the ATG-4000’s data connection.”

Aircell’s not so sure. Spokespeople for the company said network designers haven’t had a chance to investigate TrueNorth’s concept and are wary about letting third-party gear play with the ATG-4000 without testing the method first. “It’s similar to what Inmarsat does with suppliers of satcom hardware,” explained an Aircell spokesman, referring to the requirement that any hardware developer that wishes to tap into the Inmarsat satellite network first undergo a rigorous qualification process.

Van Berkel said he thinks Aircell’s objections are more about dollars and cents than legitimate network-interference concerns, and that’s why he has decided to go ahead and offer the Aircell-based application to TrueNorth customers despite the threats. “I see it as a little bit of a smokescreen, honestly,” van Berkel said.
With the OpenCabin suite of enterprise-level software applications, TrueNorth
is moving away from hardware-centric products to ones that can be upgraded
with an ever-expanded variety of OpenCabin apps. So far TrueNorth offers 18 apps covering capabilities for VoIP (voice over Internet protocol), power-adjustable Wi-Fi, data routing and acceleration, improved voice quality and links to Google business applications.

In the TrueNorth press release announcing the Aircell ATG connectivity app, the company said the software was developed to help operators save money. “Instead of buying an expensive proprietary hardware link, [OpenCabin] users can simply use this app with a less-expensive Aircell broadband unit and get the same performance,” the release noted.

According to Aircell marketing material, the ATG-5000 system is intended to provide “standalone Aircell high-speed Internet capabilities for customers that don’t require the integrated voice, narrowband data and network-neutral benefits of Aircell Axxess.” It describes the ATG-4000 system as a “modular add-on to the Aircell Axxess cabin system” that provides Aircell data service “as well as multiple channels of worldwide voice and narrowband data service via the Iridium satellite network–in a network-neutral package.” Aircell says the ATG-5000 was developed for customers who want to add Aircell data alongside existing satcom systems.

Aircell spokespeople said the company might alter its stance on TrueNorth’s OpenCabin concept if network designers investigate the concept and give their blessing. Aircell’s air-to-ground network consists of 92 ground stations around the U.S. designed to provide uninterrupted broadband connections (providing DSL-like speeds) above 10,000 feet. Aircell provides the service to a variety of airlines and recently began installations of ATG-4000 hardware for business jet customers. Hardware installations of ATG-5000 equipment were due to start this month, according to Aircell.

Van Berkel, meanwhile, says he remains committed to working something out with Aircell. “We’re a strong proponent of Aircell, not an opponent,” he said.