A Firsthand Look at SmartSky’s 4G LTE In-Flight Connectivity

By Amy Kluber | November 17, 2017
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SmartSky Networks is planning to officially roll out its 4G LTE in-flight connectivity service to business jet operators in the continental U.S. in mid-2018. Once fully operational, the company said it will be the first aviation connectivity service provider using a proprietary beam-forming technology in an air-to-ground network.

The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company has described its network as an “open connectivity ecosystem,” with 60 MHz of unlicensed spectrum and 4G beam-forming technology delivering a signal that locks onto an aircraft to deliver unrestricted access to the internet.

Avionics was among the first to experience the technology at a media event in Melbourne, Florida. That region houses one of several of the network provider’s demonstration sites, in addition to New York City; Wichita, Kansas; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Las Vegas. Three of what the company calls “evolved packet cores” have already been established and are operational in Ashburn, Virginia; Denver, Colorado; and San Jose, California.

A similar demonstration had been given to various early bird installation partners for the service at NBAA in Las Vegas in October. Those partners include a total of 10 aviation companies including Bombardier, Clay Lacy Aviation and Duncan Aviation.

The technology will not be available for widespread adoption among other operators until the official launch in that mid-2018 target date — after supplemental type certificates (STC) become available. SmartSky said the STC processes for more than 40 business aircraft are currently underway with 35 STC partners, which include those participating in the early bird installation.

SmartSky says its service is capable of providing 10 times faster speeds and 20 times the bandwidth compared to competing services. Though SmartSky’s service will only be available for business jets, the company says it hopes to develop it for commercial aviation in the future.

In fact, the technology’s low latency and quick upload and download speeds could set precedent for many other valuable use cases, like telemedicine. SmartSky’s customer service and support provider that also provides SmartSky’s routers, Satcom Direct, has some ideas for this capability.

“[Connected devices] today have to whittle down their data to send it through [to the ground]. But you could have a video chat with a doctor and at the same time be sending down megs of data you’re collecting off a patient in real time,” said Derek Donahue, Satcom’s senior commercial director. “The real change in technology for me is the latency and the upload [speed].”

As Avionics experienced, the capability is shown to support seamless use of Wi-Fi-capable activities on any device without the need for a special app. Users simply connect to the Wi-Fi network as they would on the ground. Once connected and above 10,000 feet agl, users can access virtual private networks (VPN), send emails, call, text and stream video, as long as the activity is Wi-Fi enabled.

“All you have to do to connect on the airplane is connect to the Wi-Fi network,” said Alan Goodnight, SmartSky’s VP of aviation business development. “That is important to the user, an advantage we bring to the market that no one else can offer.”

Goodnight explained that the system on each aircraft is capable of supporting 10 to 12 devices per aircraft simultaneously streaming content without any signs of performance degradation.

Though the service officially launches next year, SmartSky is allowing current early bird customers to use the service on its existing functioning routes for free. At launch, all customers will have to purchase monthly subscription data packages ranging from $2,500 for 5 GB to $4,500 for 25 GB.

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