NBAA Convention News

Aircell broadband service poised for rapid growth

 - September 30, 2008, 5:22 AM

The next time you hop on a commercial flight–or a business jet, for that matter–to come to an NBAA Convention, you might have the opportunity to access Aircell’s air-to-ground broadband Internet service from the comfort of your seat.

Called Gogo when marketed to airline passengers, the high-speed data offering 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. Of greater interest to show attendees, Aircell says it’s also about to install the system in the first customer business jet.

During a visit last month to the Aircell network operation center near Chicago, the facility was strangely quiet–but it won’t be long before the room is a bustle of activity. NBAA Convention News traveled to the facility for an exclusive look at the nerve center behind aviation’s first air-to-ground broadband Internet network. On the day of the 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 at that time. The scene wasn’t particularly impressive. But these targets, overlaid on a Google Earth map of the U.S. and representing a small 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.

Broadband in the Sky

A live demonstration 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 potential pitfall, however, was that no other airplanes were accessing this particular Aircell ground site during our test, meaning that the Falcon’s four 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 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 like Skype.

But focusing on the potential for network congestion this early in the rollout of the Aircell service makes little sense. After all, only a small handful of American 767s (15 so far) are equipped for the Gogo service, and other airlines are just starting to install the equipment in their fleets. At the time of our visit to 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 to many thousands of users 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 you stop 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 reverse direction.

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 Gulfstream’s Broad Band Multi Link service. 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.

250-Mile Radius

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.

“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, Blumenstein added.

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 to conduct more than 1,000 hours of live network testing–a pair of King Airs, a Learjet 35, a leased Falcon 2000 and the Falcon 20–all of them based at Aurora Municipal Airport south of Chicago.

Last month’s demonstration flight 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 at a hotel or Starbucks. 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 over central Wisconsin 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.