FAA doesn’t understand Wi-Fi for bizav, say suppliers

 - August 2, 2010, 5:27 AM

With the increasing use of BlackBerrys, iPhones and other personal electronic devices, business aircraft operators now have several options for full-time air-to-ground communication using smartphones in the cabin. But geting the FAA to sign off on a Wi-Fi installation can be a major undertaking, equipment makers complain.
Several manufacturers offer aviation-grade Wi-Fi systems of varying complexity and price to accommodate wireless use in the cabin. They range from e-mail-only products such as EMS Aviation’s Forté AirMail to multi-use products such as Thrane & Thrane’s (using the Inmarsat network), TrueNorth’s, ICG/Cobham’s and Aircell’s network-based systems.  

Iridium-based Wi-Fi systems from EMS Aviation and ICG, for example, offer lower costs for service and on-aircraft hardware but limited capability. With those choices also come issues of obtaining FAA certification to operate smartphones like the iPhone and BlackBerry aloft. The concern is how to help providers and users of Wi-Fi personal devices to reduce the cost and complexity of certifying their in-flight use.

Forté AirMail, offered by EMS Aviation, has been certified for installation aboard 13 different business aircraft. Justin Steinke, EMS Aviation sales manager, said his company was fortunate in being able to use a “grandfathered STC” for an existing Wi-Fi router first certified for Inmarsat Swift64 and SwiftBroadband applications. Iain Ronis, EMS Aviation strategic account manager, called the Iridium-based narrow-bandwidth, low-cost Forté AirMail “a significant departure, extremely focused on e-mail solutions for smartphones, iPhone and BlackBerry.”

At the other end of the capability spectrum, TrueNorth’s Simphone¯ OpenCabin system features multi-network access, including Iridium and broadband interface with support for all types of TPED and Wi-Fi devices. An adjustable power level eases installation certification by ensuring that the system does not interfere with flight-deck electronics.

A product named Sora jointly certified this April by ICG and Cobham Antenna Systems offers both Iridium and SwiftBroadband (SBB) voice and data worldwide. It integrates ICG’s NxtLink 220A Iridium system and NxtMail server with a Cobham Inmarsat SBB terminal. The combination enables Wi-Fi devices such as BlackBerry, iPhone and personal computers to operate on the high-speed SBB channel, while the cabin and crew communicate using Iridium’s worldwide voice.

Ric Peri, v-p for government and industry affairs with the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA), said communication between the FAA and industry regarding uniform and more specific certification standards is hindered because “the FAA doesn’t understand business aircraft. Its concern with Wi-Fi is within the context of aircraft operation, not simply as a function of business activity in the cabin. You might say it has  a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.” The problem, said Peri, is that “the standards are written more for airlines, not business aviation.” Moreover, added Ronis, there are different rules under Parts 91, 135 and 121 regarding Wi-Fi. “There is no standard answer, and responses on specific issues are likely to vary among FAA regions.”

Peri said the AEA and industry continue to work with the FAA Transport Directorate, “trying to get our arms around the Wi-Fi certification process. It’s still considered new technology despite being around for several years. Today, the FAA isn’t dealing with known certification issues, but certifying against an unknown hazard.”  

Can the certification of Wi-Fi products be simplified? Peri predicts that once the FAA publishes an advisory circular on Wi-Fi, a designated engineering representative might be able to issue a certification plan for a specific airframe without going through the STC process. “But because of the FAA’s lack of guidance,” he said, “installations are being forced into the STC process even though, technically, there’s no justification for doing so.”