SmartSky Networks’ innovative air-to-ground connectivity solution has taken almost a decade to create. Next year, when its first customers go online, President and Director Ryan Stone says the reality of ground experience in the air will finally have arrived
Founded in 2011, SmartSky Networks expects to begin delivery of its unique air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity to airline and business aviation customers very soon. It’s been a long haul, marked by significant progress and regular news releases as milestones are reached.
On 30 July 2019, for example, the company announced it had: “…received its 130th patent supporting the development of its advanced air-to-ground network. Titled, Architecture for Simultaneous Spectrum Usage by Air-to-Ground and Terrestrial Networks, SmartSky’s latest patent is part of an exclusive rights portfolio at the core of its unique and innovative ATG technology.” SmartSky isn’t simply developing a communications system, it’s reinventing the connectivity wheel.
Looking back on almost a decade of development work, SmartSky Networks President and Director Ryan Stone says: “They’ve been an inspiring few years as we took on what started out as a daunting challenge. We divided it into milestones, with the belief that if we proved something that wasn’t known before at one step, then we got to go to the next. At times it was frustrating; a lot of what was believed about air-to-ground connectivity was wrong because the wrong technology base was being applied; it wasn’t that air-to-ground was slow, just that the limited air-to-ground spectrum was slow.
“What we were doing was making the most capital-efficient aviation communications network that has ever been seen; it wasn’t expensive, but compared to a business that isn’t deploying a nationwide network, our investment seems like a lot of money – several hundred million dollars is not a lot in our space, especially if you consider the cost of launching and operating a single satellite, which might represent a half-billion dollar investment. What we’re doing is very different. We’ve set the bar high and we’ve worked hard to achieve it.”
“We’ve done a number of customer demonstrations on our Citation XLS and with our launch airline, JSX, on a regional jet, and those have shown the experience available from our connectivity is head and shoulders above anything else on the market; it delivers the experience we expect on the ground.”
Interestingly, just as SmartSky is no regular connectivity provider, so JSX is an unusual airline. Operating a fleet of 30-seat Embraer ERJ135s configured to a standard close to business class, the carrier offers daily ‘hop-on’ services, primarily between California cities, but soon extending into Arizona, Nevada and Washington. Its customers enjoy rapid boarding and comfortable lounges but, Stone explains, “The one gap was a really robust internet connection in the air. Now the first JSX aircraft is being outfitted with our equipment.” The airline’s website notes: “…coming in 2020 – free high-speed WiFi on board”.
The wait is almost over. SmartSky will soon prove that the performance wowing customers and journalists on demonstration flights translates into a similarly impressive product in daily use. “Our focus now is on rolling the network out across the US and optimising the experience so that people can do everything they do on the ground in the air, without changing their behaviour. We’ve also been working on STCs with our partner companies and right now those potentially cover 10,000 ‘tails’, either with STCs complete or under way. In just a few months, we’ll be in a really different place,” Stone says.
Depending on your point of few, ‘just a few months’ is nothing in terms of aerospace development and regulation, but a lifetime if you want SmartSky delivering on your Learjet. What will Stone be telling potential customers visiting the company’s NBAA-BACE booth? “They should talk to whichever of our partners has or is developing the STC for their aircraft, and get their install scheduled. We’ll ask when maintenance is due so the install can be done at the same time as the annual check.” If that shop visit and install fell in April 2020, for example, how long would the customer need to wait before getting online? “They’ll be enjoying it from Day One,” Stone declares.
So, SmartSky connectivity for business aviation customers is imminent, at which point the industry will be testing the company’s claim for delivering the ground experience in the air. It’s a claim made many times by the major connectivity players in recent years and one upon which a minority is now beginning to deliver. Is SmartSky’s promise marketing spin? Or will it genuinely deliver?
Stone doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, we really will deliver. Those claims are part of the reason we started the company. We were consistently disappointed by the incumbent systems, where the marketing didn’t match the experience. What people are finding on our demos is that the experience matches the expectation – that’s what our customers will find.
“But saying it will match the experience on the ground doesn’t mean much unless you provide examples, describe what it will match. So, if you use VPN on the ground, you’ll be able to do it in the air. If you access the Cloud for your corporate computing, you’ll be able to do it in the air, whether you’re downloading or uploading files – we’ve had someone upload 800Mb to the Cloud during a demo flight, while other people were also using devices and a Fortnite game was going on. And, on a business jet, people will be video conferencing and ‘Webexing’ too.”
Most readers aged over 30 likely rolled their eyes at mention of Fortnite, but the mass multiplayer battle royale game could be a standard industry test for latency, the time taken for a signal to travel from its origination point in the aircraft, to the internet, and back.
Stone explains: “Latency can’t be avoided, it’s a result of the physics. But we have an inherent advantage of about a half second because we’re sending signals only to a tower on the ground and back, rather than to a satellite. On top of that, the architecture and 5G technology of our system optimises the service, further minimising latency.” It’s an important component in SmartSky’s compelling experience.
Winning A Market
The US has a well-established incumbent in the air-to-ground space, already serving customers in the airline and business aviation markets. SmartSky is taking on that trusted player in the quest for business; it needs to offer a genuine alternative.
“It won’t be easy, but our focus has been on providing the one thing missing from the industry – a compelling user experience. We believe that if we do that well, when people start using the network things will naturally happen. I liken it to the terrestrial environment in the late 1990s, where a large incumbent had a majority of the dial-up service. When broadband was created it transformed the industry and the mix of players. We’re in this to improve the calibre of experience. We think competition is a good thing and the market is large enough to support multiple players, even without taking share away from the incumbent.”
SmartSky is virtually awash with patents – 130 issued and 91 pending by mid-August – such is the scope of its technology. And it’s still working to improve, even as it gets closer to ‘switching on’ its service. Is there an argument for sitting back, happy to be delivering what was promised? “Kodak did that with the digital camera,” Stone says. “They decided their film business was good enough and didn’t really invest in their digital camera unit, even though they had one. It caused the company’s downfall. You can’t ever get complacent in a technology business. And, pushing the envelope is one of our three core values.”
But if the company had been less ambitious, perhaps settling for a product that was simply better, rather than revolutionary, might it have come to market and begun making money sooner? “No.” Stone is emphatic. “Strangely, the whole market has been working against a very significant constraint – spectrum availability. The incumbent air-to-ground player paid $40 million for the only 4MHz of spectrum available in the US. We’re using 60MHz, so even if that spectrum had been available, at that rate we’d have had to spend around $600 million, just for the real estate.
“Instead, we created the technology to reuse the terrestrial spectrum in the air, without the ground disrupting us, while ensuring we didn’t cause harmful interference to the ground. Solving those challenges wasn’t trivial, but if you ignore the marketing, all the incumbents were delivering a dial-up or slightly faster service and I don’t think the market needed another similar solution. We began by solving the spectrum issue, then developed our beam-forming technology. In order to deliver the experience people wanted in the air, the experience that had been promised for so long, without them having to change their habits when they got on the airplane, we had to be innovative.”
SmartSky Networks does appear to have reinvented the connectivity wheel. After nine years of intensive invention, its innovation is finally reaching fruition; the time for demonstration is over, the time to deliver has arrived.