The era of the Airfone air-to-ground radiotelephone system comes to an end on December 31 when Aircell, the new owner of the Airfone network, plans to shut the service down. Aircell purchased the Airfone network from LiveTV earlier this year and will use the Airfone frequencies to expand and meet growing demand for its Gogo and Gogo Biz airborne broadband Internet services. The Airfone frequencies are adjacent to those used by the Gogo service.
The Airfone network lasted for a relatively long time, launching in the 1970s then becoming GTE Airfone. Verizon ended up with the Airfone business following a spectrum auction in 2006, then in 2008 LiveTV purchased Airfone. The Airfone network was pivotal in the 9/11 attacks, with many calls documented via the service on all four hijacked airliners. Oddly, in a modern age where many airliners and business aircraft have the ability to connect passengers to the Internet, few enable voice calls, although presumably passengers could use the Internet to send text messages and emails during an emergency.
Most business jet Airfone users connect to the network via MagnaStar systems. There were about 4,000 business aviation Airfone subscribers at one time, but that number has dropped, according to an Aircell spokesman. “Most have already migrated to newer technology.”
While the Airfone network is being decommissioned, MagnaStar equipment and handsets installed in aircraft can still be used if the system is connected to an Inmarsat satellite communications transceiver. So MagnaStar owners don’t necessarily need to remove those systems. Teledyne Controls, the service provider for MagnaStar, will continue supporting these products.
Aircell is, however, offering discounts for operators with current Airfone service, of up to $20,000 on three packages of Aircell connectivity and equipment. Discounts of up to $10,000 are available for MagnaStar owners who don’t currently have an Airfone service contract, according to Aircell.
The Gogo Biz service provides Internet connectivity via Aircell’s air-to-ground network in North America and parts of Alaska (southern Canada is coming soon). Gogo Biz operates above 10,000 feet at speeds up to 3.1 Mbps. Voice service will be added to Gogo Biz soon. Aircell also offers satcom equipment for use on both the Iridium and Inmarsat SwiftBroadband networks, for communication outside the Aircell coverage areas.