The first customer installation of a SmartSky Networks 4G LTE air-to-ground connectivity system was completed by Pentastar Aviation. The installation is in a Gulfstream G550, and it was certified under an approved model list (AML) supplemental type certificate (STC) covering the GIV through G550.
Although SmartSky is building towers for its 4G LTE network near dealer locations to allow testing of the system after installation, Pentastar technicians tested the G550 system with a portable test rig that simulates the operation of the tower.
The SmartSky tower network is 80 percent complete for coverage of the New York-Chicago and New York-Florida routes. These routes will be ready for further flight testing by year-end. In spring 2019, SmartSky expects to have tower coverage built out to accommodate areas where 90 percent of business aviation flight hours are flown in the U.S. By the end of next year, the entire continental U.S. is expected to be covered.
At the 90 percent coverage level, SmartSky will launch service with more than 20,000 “beams” available. Each aircraft using the network will have its own beam and switch from beam to beam as it flies, thus ensuring that all users receive full connectivity and service levels. The full Continental U.S. coverage will provide more than 25,000 beams.
The SmartSky 4G LTE network allows in-flight VPN access, email with large attachments, simultaneous voice calling, texting, and video streaming by multiple users. During a recent SmartSky test flight, four users were making video calls while the video game Fortnite was streaming in real-time and another user was uploading a 250 GB file. “It didn’t choke,” said Nancy Walker, SmartSky chief commercial officer.
SmartSky (Booth 3015) is offering two airborne systems: SmartSky Lite for turboprops and small jets and the SmartSky 4G LTE system for larger aircraft. The Lite system includes a base radio (12.1 pounds) and a full-duplex quad antenna (6.5) pounds, while the 4G LTE system requires an additional high-performance blade antenna (13.5 pounds). Antennas are mounted on the fuselage bottom.
The Lite system introductory price is less than $50,000 for hardware and $75 per hour for unlimited data. Buyers of the 4G LTE system receive 100 GB of data for the price of 25 GB for booking an installation in 2019 (must sign up by March 31, 2019). Service prices for 4G LTE range from $2,500 for 5 GB per month to $4,500 for 100 GB per month.
Work on other STCs for equipment installation is under way, and many should be ready about the time that the SmartSky network launches next year. Bombardier and Textron service centers are developing STCs for many of their aircraft, and other companies working on STCs for a variety of business jet types include Delta Engineering, StandardAero, Clay Lacy Aviation, Ventura Air, and Duncan Aviation.
A key feature of SmartSky’s service is low latency because it runs on a network of towers on the ground, not on a satellite network. “That is as important as speed for user experience,” said Walker.