SmartSky Networks is launching an airborne 4G LTE-based network, SmartSky, which will serve both business aviation and the airlines starting in 2016. According to the Melbourne, Fla.-based company, SmartSky will provide more than 10 times the typical speed and capacity of networks currently on the market by using 60 MHz of spectrum for its air-to-ground (ATG) data communications.
Plans call for starting beta customer trials of SmartSky 4G in the continental U.S. late next year before rolling out its commercial service nationwide in 2016. SmartSky then expects to expand its airborne 4G service internationally without making any changes to the on-aircraft hardware.
“We believe this will be the most cost-effective, high-bandwidth national network ever built in the U.S.,” said SmartSky vice chairman, and former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Reed Hundt. Last year, the company performed a live flight demonstration of SmartSky with multiple users on board engaged in video conferences, streaming movies, sending and receiving large files and other bandwidth-intensive activities all at the same time.
Here at NBAA 2014 SmartSky unveiled the launch partners that will distribute SmartSky 4G to the business aviation community. These include Textron Aviation, Duncan Aviation (aftermarket certification and installation), Satcom Direct (service provider), ICG (eRouter) and Harris Corp. (airborne and ground equipment).
While few details on how SmartSky achieves such high data speed rates are available, SmartSky Networks president Ryan Stone told AIN there are two key elements that make this possible. “It is patented technology based on Harris [expertise] that we and some [other companies] developed together. The core secret sauce is phased-array beam forming. If you think of an existing system as broadcasting like a flashlight beam, as an aircraft flies into it, the signal is sort of getting shared by all the aircraft in there. We’re individually targeting each aircraft with the full bandwidth. The other aspect is the fact that we are accessing 60 MHz of spectrum.”
Stone would not reveal any information about the frequencies that SmartSky will use, but did say that no FCC approval will be required other than for the transceivers. This implies that the frequencies are in an unregulated part of the frequency spectrum. While critics might suggest that this means that SmartSky could be subject to interference from other users of the same spectrum, Stone emphasized that “we’ve done three years of homework about interference, and we’re satisfied that there is no interference.”