TrueNorth puts focus on apps, not hardware

 - February 22, 2010, 7:23 AM

Following supplemental type certification of its Simphone OpenCabin airborne telecommunications system for Bombardier’s Global business jet line, TrueNorth Avionics says it is experiencing a run of orders and installations for its software-centric packages.

In the past year, TrueNorth telecommunications were selected for the U.S. Air Force fleet of some 80 executive transports. TrueNorth has also won a contract to place its equipment on a European head-of-state aircraft, and independent completion centers Gore Design Completion and Bizjet will be putting it into several bizliners
for which they are doing the cabin completion work.

Since the first of this year, Savannah Air Center has been installing TrueNorth Simphone OpenCabin on a new, highly customized Global Express XRS being done under contract with Bombardier, and Simphone OpenCabin has been picked as a retrofit package on a customer’s first Falcon 900 EASy.

While it has been, with some notable exceptions, primarily a retrofit item, according to president and founder Mark van Berkel, “We’ll be announcing at least one new OEM program this year.”

Some two years in development, Simphone uses a suite of enterprise-level software apps to bring advanced voice and data-management capabilities into the cabin. In fact, the “software-centric” element is key to what van Berkel believes is the future of cabin communication systems.

The current hardware-centric cabin telecommunications equipment, said van Berkel, is “heavy, complex, expensive to install and prone to obsolescence.”
The answer that van Berkel and his team have come up with is a converged solution–Simphone OpenCabin– that he says will interface with virtually any corporate aircraft.

When the new OpenCabin voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) program was unveiled last October at the NBAA Convention, that ability to interface with other networks, such as Aircell’s ATG 4000 hardware, set off bells in the industry. Not surprisingly, it was not altogether sweet music to some competitors.

Aircell objected, warning would-be users of the True-North apps that the Aircell data service would be shut off and their hardware warranties voided if they tried to link into the Aircell network.

Meetings between the two parties at NBAA resulted in no agreement, and van Berkel has stated, “It’s available with Simphone and we continue to offer it.”

Also in October, True-North announced the first sale of its Simphone Global Broadband, a compact In-marsat satellite-based, high-speed data system for worldwide business aviation use. Simphone broadband is a rather compact system comprising a 2-MCU processor, high-power amplifier and low-profile antenna with a total system weight of less than 20 pounds. Its partner in the effort was UK-based Cobham, which provided hardware, including the antenna. The first installation is being performed by Huron Park, Ontario-based Goderich Aircraft in an MD-87 executive recon- figuration project.

Simphone, typically priced at less than $100,000 uninstalled, has built-in software such as a data router and Wi-Fi point, whereas in hardware-centric systems those items would require additional boxes.

“All you need is Simphone and the broadband hardware,” said van Berkel. But with the equivalent hardware-centric system, “there are two additional boxes and another $30,000.”

At about the same time, TrueNorth announced a new connectivity app to complement its OpenCabin SmartPlane communications system and offer access to the in-development TerreStar S-band satcom network. Using small, lightweight hardware and an antenna comparable to a GPS or Iridium antenna, TerreStar’s network provides voice and data with speeds similar to a 3G ground network. The ramp-up coverage areas include Alaska, Canada, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the continental U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

What makes the TrueNorth product truly competitive, says van Berkel, is the apps-centric software heart, and he points out that the advantages are numerous, starting with a single LRU, hardware unit, compared with four boxes for a comparable hardware-centric system. “It’s like a smartphone,” he explained. “When you want to do something new, you simply add a new app.”

Applications now available from TrueNorth include all-digital PBX (private branch exchange), power-adjustable Wi-Fi; data routing and acceleration; master communications management display and a link to Google business applications, BlackBerry and virtually every cellphone available.

The cost of VoIP calls, said van Berkel, is comparable with that of traditional Inmarsat rates, but he added, “With the capability of two or three voice calls over the same channel, it is considerably less expensive.”

As for the future of apps-centric systems, van Berkel sees few limits, including “a marriage with cabin communication and entertainment. The days of canned content are ending.”

The bulk of new orders have come from the U.S, but van Berkel said business elsewhere is picking up.