Avionics manufacturer Avidyne and Airspan, a cellular telephone network LTE small cell and 4G base station manufacturer, have formed a partnership called AirSky to develop regional air-to-ground telecommunications networks. Under the partnership, Avidyne would manufacture airborne equipment while Airspan would build the base stations.
There are currently three major air-to-ground (ATG) airborne connectivity networks operating or in development. The Gogo ATG network is the longest-serving, since the early 2000s, and covers the continental U.S., central Canada and other areas in Canada, and portions of Alaska. SmartSky anticipates switching on its ATG network serving much of the continental U.S. this year. And in Europe, Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom have partnered to develop the European Aviation Network, a high-speed combined ATG and satcom airborne connectivity system.
This leaves other regions in the world without any ATG network opportunities and reliant only on satcom, and that’s the void that AirSky wants to fill.
The idea is to offer regions interested in ATG a standardized system that is relatively easy to build out. The way this is done now is to build a customized system each time, starting from scratch, according to Avidyne CEO Dan Schwinn. “There is no standard, and not very many companies have done it.” The proposed AirSky A2G network would run on Airspan's AirSky ground infrastructure and services and use Avidyne's SkyLNX airborne hardware.
AirSky has thus far built a demonstration network with two ground stations in Florida and done some in-flight testing. Network speeds were demonstrated at up to 50 Mbps downlink, but the big advantage of ATG over satcom is lower latency (signal delay) because the airborne equipment is much closer to the ground-based stations compared to satcom systems.
The advantage for the systems that AirSky is offering is that most countries have existing cellular telephone networks, and adding antennas to airborne ATG is relatively simple. For areas where airborne telecom traffic is higher, he added, “You can densify [the network] where you need to.”
AirSky has had discussions with telecoms around the world about building ATG networks. “They have infrastructure they can leverage,” Schwinn said. “There is definitely interest, but it’s too early to say anything will come from it. We’re hoping that wireless operators, but maybe other businesses, will say, ‘I’d like to build one of these in my country or region.’ We’ll see what happens. This is our launch to see if anybody wants to engage with us.”