SmartSky Networks

On Wednesday, SmartSky Networks received approval from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use an unlicensed portion of the 2.4 GHz spectrum band for in-flight connectivity. Image via SmartSky Networks

APEX Insight: Advancements from SmartSky Networks and Gogo mean air-to-ground connectivity will soon provide peak network speeds of 100 Mbps, delivering an office-like Internet experience in the air.

Competition in the long-established air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity landscape in the United States has heated up over the past two days with announcements from startup SmartSky Networks and Gogo.

On Wednesday, SmartSky’s patented 4G spectrum reuse radio system received approval from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), enabling the company to use an unlicensed portion of the 2.4 GHz spectrum band for in-flight connectivity. Sixty MHz of spectrum will be used with 4G technology, representing a huge leap of capability when compared to the earlier-generation ATG standard of 3 MHz on the 3G system.

“After investing tens of millions of dollars and over five years of research and development effort, SmartSky’s now certified technology has unlocked enough spectrum to be able to offer, for the first time, the reliable use of a sophisticated, custom-designed 4G system that can deliver an office-like Internet experience in the air for both business aviation and commercial aviation customers,” said Haynes Griffin, SmartSky’s chairman and CEO, in a press release.

“SmartSky’s now certified technology has unlocked enough spectrum to be able to offer … a sophisticated, custom-designed 4G system that can deliver an office-like Internet experience in the air.” — Haynes Griffin, SmartSky Networks

SmartSky says that its proprietary beam-forming will give each equipped aircraft a full 4G experience, with one beam per plane originating from an ATG network that will support nearly 20,000 beams. The company has developed a patent portfolio that includes technology enabling it to provide this next-generation service, without causing any interference with ground-based applications. “By application of novel technologies using 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum, SmartSky’s breakthrough will finally give the aviation industry the superior connectivity now taken for granted terrestrially,” said Reed Hundt, vice-chairman of the board.

Gogo will also use previously unlicensed spectrum to provide peak network speeds of 100 Mbps for in-flight connectivity in the United States and Canada, in its next-generation ATG system, which is currently under development. The LTE-based system will utilize a proprietary modem, a new beam-forming antenna and Gogo’s existing infrastructure of more than 250 towers in North America.

“Leveraging our first-generation network is key to making this next-generation network highly reliable and economical to deploy. Gogo’s next-generation network will also be backward-compatible with Gogo’s first-generation network, which means an aircraft will be able to seamlessly switch between Gogo’s two networks, similar to how a cell phone on the ground connects to the fastest available network,” said Anand Chari, Gogo’s CTO, in a press release.

SmartSky plans to begin service later this year, with full coverage over the United States expected in 2017. Gogo has said it will begin service of its new network in 2018.

Howard has been passionate about aviation since he was a little kid, and is a pilot who loves to fly gliders and just about anything else with wings. He's a frequent contributor to aviation magazines and blogs.