Inflight Service Connects via Towers

Inflight Service Connects via Towers

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Eric Griffith

March 31, 2005

AirCell says its upcoming inflight wireless broadband will embrace cellular—both for backhaul to the ground and for callers in the plane—as well as Wi-Fi.

Louisville, Colo.-based AirCell says later this year it will be demonstrating a prototype system to put not only Wi-Fi connections in planes, but also cellular voice communications. And it will do so using a wireless connection from the plane to towers on the ground.

AirCell specializes in creating telecommunications systems for aircraft, everything from fax systems to voice. This demo of the AirCell Broadband System will be the company’s first to use Wi-Fi.

Connexion by Boeing is arguably the best-known of the inflight wireless services. It uses a satellite backhaul connection to let passengers and crew onboard a commercial jet go online with their Wi-Fi enabled laptops. AirCell will have an Iridium satellite link available for users that require it (those traveling outside of the continental U.S.), but says it can save customers money when they utilize AirCell’s “terrestrial air-to-ground link.” This backhaul connection comes from passing over ground-based cell sites outfitted with antennas that point up in the sky, instead of just omni-directional ones for ground-based mobile phone users.

“Our system is targeting a price of nine or ten dollars per flight,” says Tom Myers, director of marketing at AirCell. Connexion is charging $15 for flights less than three hours long, $20 for flights under six hours, and $30 for flights over six hours.

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The connection to the ground will usually range from 300 to 500 Kbps, with bursts up to 3.1 Mbps. Each cell site covers a 150-mile radius, with none of the interference found on the ground (hills, buildings, trees, etc.). Myers estimates that it would only take about 130 strategically-placed ground cells to cover 95 percent of U.S. airspace with air-to-ground links.

AirCell will have the added benefit of voice capabilities that can work with existing cell phones by using a Picocell in each plane’s cabin. AirCell currently operates an airborne-only analog network for its customers. AirCell has FCC approval to operate a cellular network in an airborne environment. The cost of calls will be extra as well, but at rates lower than usually found in wired in-flight phones today.

The AirCell Broadband Service is being targeted at airline customers. Though no deals are yet in place, Myers intimates that it would be a good fit for smaller airlines like Southwest or JetBlue.

Connexion has had some issues in the past with installation time, a problem for airlines that can’t afford to take planes out of commission for too long. AirCell’s plan is to have each plane out of service for just one overnight installation, since they need to put in “a single antenna in the cabin, a couple of boxes under the floor, and an antenna on the bottom of the plane.” The company uses as many third party products as they can—limited to whatever has FAA certification—to keep costs down.

Trials of the Broadband System will probably not start until the middle of next year, but if all goes well with tests and acquisition of spectrum licenses from the FCC, the company hopes to expand the terrestrial air-to-ground network throughout Canada, Mexico, and even the Caribbean.

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