Powering Possibility

posted on 20th March 2023
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Powering Possibility

SmartSky Networks CEO and Director David Helfgott predicts a busy 2023 as the company builds on the solid foundations of its air-to-ground infrastructure

After years of promising the business aviation market something remarkable from its unique air-to-ground connectivity solution, SmartSky Networks has begun to deliver. The questions now are what happens next and was the product worth the wait in a sector where providers have been offering the home/office broadband experience in the air for at least a decade, yet with every successive technology release claim to have finally done it.
David Helfgott, SmartSky Networks CEO and Director, says: “Having worked in satellite communications and electronically steered antennas, I’m aware there’s a ‘hype bubble’ that surrounds any service or technology announcement in narrow band, broadband and air-to-ground. Through any telecommunications marketing effort, including, for example US terrestrial wireless services, it’s very difficult to know ‘are we there yet?’.”
Are we? Helfgott is certain: “In terms of SmartSky, yes. We spent a long time getting to this point. The first third or maybe half of that was traditional research and development, regulatory work and proof of concepts. The rest of the time was spent implementing it.” Those simple words fail to convey the magnitude of the challenge SmartSky set itself, although Helfgott is refreshingly candid on the subject.
“We had a couple of false starts, vendor issues that we put behind us two years ago. But that cost us time – at least a year, maybe two – and money. It had a lot to do with the complexities around software-defined wireless networks. When you start with the premise that you want to deliver the best platform for aviation connectivity, you go to the technology platforms, 4G, 5G and so on and hybridise them for the best outcome. We’ve done that. We’ve completed the technology, the nationwide infrastructure and the backbone that ties into our data centres and network operations centre. And we have revenue in all three lines of business as of last quarter 2022.”
The past two years have been busy, ‘frantic’, Helfgott says. “We’ve gone from a technology refresh to build out and launch. That includes the equipment that goes on the aircraft, the network itself and the application above that, which we call Skytelligence. We have 20 installation and distribution partners, MROs and OEMs, Honeywell as our significant value added reseller, and we announced three exclusive deals with flyExclusive, Jet It and Textron. We’re working with them to develop STCs for our hardware on 12 different aircraft.”
SmartSky Networks is following the traditional route to market, first through STCs for in-service aircraft. Helfgott is keen to assert that the company plans to move from close relationships with OEM aftermarket departments into line fit agreements. “We’re having conversations with, or already in contract with every business aviation OEM. Those discussions are continuing but we’ll certainly serve the aftermarket, including the new-build pre-delivery aftermarket, and line fit as soon as we can.”

Growing market
The years during which SmartSky Networks was working hard to reach this point have been marked by various clashes, legal and otherwise, with the incumbent US air-to-ground provider. The market is large and competition good for customers and the industry and it is an important point to address without raking over old coals… “There may be further conversations, but the market is plenty big for both if us and growing. It’s currently underserved and there are places where air-to-ground is the only viable solution and places where it can complement wideband satcom,” Helfgott asserts.
Regardless of its development cycle and the deep experience of its executive team, from the customer perspective SmartSky Networks is new, young and unproven. In a world where we expect trouble free, simple internet access from our personal devices, the fact that an iPhone connects to the SmartSky network in a Falcon flying at 500mph over Iowa will impress no one. It is what SmartSky does to fix the problem when it doesn’t connect that will decide how customers perceive the company.
“We sell our services through VARs, like Honeywell and Avionica, and the hardware through MRO and OEM partnerships. We provide ‘tier 3’ support to those organisations, so if there’s a technical issue the customer’s first call is to Honeywell, in this example, and they troubleshoot it through their integrated support centre – they have complete transparency into our system and a full picture of the customer. If they can’t fix it, they come to us and we support them. It’s a time-honoured telecom model,” says Helfgott.
Faults aside, communications systems inevitably suffer interference from time to time, physical and electromagnetic. “That’s true of any network, fibre, satellite or cellular. They are almost like a living organism that changes with the environment. You try to build in as much resilience as possible to deal with those changes. The problem could be a hurricane, for example. We monitored Hurricane Nicole [November 2022] very carefully when it hit Florida. We have 13 sites in Florida but it only affected one of them, in a remote area – it was flooded and we couldn’t access it. We have our field operations teams and network management system to support the physical infrastructure.
“Considering electromagnetic interference, we think we’ve mitigated that in our network design. We have more than 30,000 independent, overlapping beams across the US. When an aircraft flies through our coverage it has a single beam, compared to a satellite, where multiple aircraft fly through a spot beam, sharing bandwidth. In our architecture one aircraft is served by one beam, but that beam switches every 10 to 15 seconds, just like a cell phone. So, the likelihood of adjacent aircraft interference is approaching zero, while the likelihood of ground-based interference is very low because of our patented technology.”
The importance of latency
Helfgott has no hesitation in comparing the SmartSky Networks inflight broadband experience to that on the ground, also noting that bandwidth on to the aircraft is virtually the same as the bandwidth off it. “We have 60-70MHz of capacity, with a single beam per aircraft, so the bandwidth isn’t shared, users don’t have to reduce their usage because there are more aircraft transmitting and receiving in their coverage area. The power required to transmit off the aircraft is also very manageable.
“With satcom, even LEO [low earth orbit], the connection is forward link biased, you get lots of bandwidth to an aircraft but it’s difficult to get a lot of bandwidth off because of the power required to broadcast. It has to be done in a way that doesn’t interfere with adjacent satellites, so it needs narrow beams, which means low power. With transmission to the ground there’s nothing to interfere with and the latency is so much lower. You’re never more than a few miles away from a tower, but always tens of thousands of miles from a satellite.
“The combination of power, available spectrum and latency enables us to have a really symmetrical datalink, allowing real-time connections, like a Teams meeting, to take place inflight just as they would on the ground. It’s also essential for encrypted communications, which won’t tolerate latency or jitter, cloud-based applications and working with corporate networks through firewalls. All those things are very sensitive to lag or latency and service drops; without a strong datalink off the aircraft they become very frustrating to use and, of course, those are all classic business applications.”
Interestingly, Helfgott never mentions speed, only bandwidth and latency. Anyone who has tried and failed to do anything useful with inflight broadband will know that published speed means nothing if the connection is unstable or constantly buffers. “Latency doesn’t get its fair share of the headlines. People talk about peak speeds and they are important, but high latency means a terrible experience even with high speeds. You need ‘ultra-low’ latency for the types of application I’ve been describing, 15m/s and below, versus 600m/s you might get from a satellite link.”
SmartSky Networks leases antenna space on existing towers. There are easily enough across the US for it to have created the dense network it has in place and that leads to an obvious question. Could the concept be applied to any region with plentiful towers? “Yes… But we’d likely look to expand into adjacent geographies, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean first, because it makes most sense for the North American market, which represents 60 to 70% of the total global business aviation market,” Helfgott reveals.
“Beyond that, we look to markets with similar use cases and regulatory environment, with sufficient demand to make it worthwhile. We’ve already been approached by potential partners in other markets. Europe has good saturation with the European Aviation Network, and wideband and narrow band satcom, and European flights are on average shorter and more biased towards commercial aviation. But it is affluent and has a huge appetite for connectivity. Other markets could include Korea and Japan, Southeast Asia and so on. But we want to get North America all locked up before we think about expansion.”

Value engines
The US network is complete and delivering bandwidth as advertised. SmartSky could simply leave it there, happy that it was supplying the connectivity it had promised. Instead, it has created Skytelligence, a platform that Helfgott says allows the exchange of ideas and information. “It takes advantage of our higher throughput/lower latency network. We bring in partners, cultivating applications and relationships and, to our benefit, it makes the system ‘stickier’, or more valuable, makes usage more stable, which is good for us while creating more value for our partners. They get, for example, to sell applications that never existed before in business aviation, including our turbulence avoidance application.”
SmartSky Networks did not create the SmoothSky application and does not generate its content, but it is hosted on the system and provided direct to tablets in business jet cockpits. “It’s a great example of real time information better used through a datalink than as a static piece of information.” Like the datalink, SmartSky works both ways with its partners, inviting suggestions and going out to them, explaining the possibilities its network unlocks.
“There are three ‘value engines’ on the aircraft from our point of view,” Helfgott continues. The tip of the spear is in the back, the cabin, the part everyone talks about. But I believe flight and operations data coming off the aircraft will overtake the cabin in its level of importance, certainly for fleet operators, corporate flight departments, MROs and OEMs. It enables more efficient maintenance and logistics, and fuel savings, all of which are best done when data comes off the aircraft in real time. We’re doing our best to help encourage and create that ecosystem.
“The third area is the cockpit. How do you supplement the information that’s already there? A big jet is likely to have plenty, a smaller turboprop aircarft not so much, and maybe you can provide additional real time information to an electronic flight bag or tablet in the cockpit.”
Right now, SmartSky Networks is working all three value engines, seeking partners and promoting opportunities. But where will it be in ten years’ time? If single-pilot or autonomous operations really are on the horizon, will it have a part to play? “Once you have the physical infrastructure there are always new ways to exploit it,” Helfgott enthuses. “At the top we have the big jets, then there are midsize and light jets, and turboprops. Then there are helicopters and general aviation types and they’re all going to need connectivity, some of them desperately. There’s already a lot of data coming off helicopters, for example, and anything that augments what’s available in the cockpit is valuable.
“Then you’re into advanced air mobility and commercial or industrial drones. Then the only questions are ‘at what elevation, what frequency and with which platform are you operating’. With the infrastructure built, those are the only variables.” It’s a revelation that opens interesting possibilities for beyond light of sight autonomous operations without satcom, since a cargo drone, for example, could operate over the horizon services within the SmartSky Networks system.
“We’ve been cooperating with NASA and the FAA on some future airspace work. It’s clear there will always be a requirement for dual or redundant datalinks for autonomous or semi-autonomous platforms, for command and control. In many case you also need information about the payload, so every platform requires two or three datalinks, taking into account the need for redundancy of route and spectrum for safety of flight reasons. We could be one of those three in every use case!”