Wireless Broadband on airplanes

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Tom Keating
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Wireless Broadband on airplanes

Some interesting news worth sharing. AirCell has announced the successful testing of wireless broadband that works while travelling on an airplane.

Tomorrow, AirCell will announce the successful completion of its extended airborne demonstration program that allows potential airline customers and others to utilize the AirCell Broadband System's technology in flight.

According to AirCell, this wireless broadband solution is "targeted for commercial deployment in 2007, the AirCell Broadband System will enable airline passengers to use their own Wi-Fi & cellular devices such as laptops, PDA's, phones and Blackberries in a fully-integrated wireless cabin over an affordable, broadband air-to-ground link."

The system uses standardized equipment and a direct air-to-ground link, so AirCell claims that its installation and operating costs will be a fraction of similar systems that use satellites.

"The AirCell Broadband System is really the first viable system for the U.S. market," stated Jack W. Blumenstein, AirCell Chairman & CEO. "If you look at what our demonstration program achieved technologically and consider the applications we'll enable for airlines and travelers, the possibilities are only limited by your imagination. During the demonstration flights, it was exciting to watch people experience the system for the first time and hear them come up with more and more ways they could use it."

According to AirCell, passengers were quite pleased with the performance. Since the AirCell Broadband System supports all the most common Wi-Fi and cellular standards, passengers can use a wide variety of applications, many of which were sampled by passengers aboard AirCell's demonstration aircraft, including email, and Internet surfing.

Participants also made VoIP phone calls using handsets and over their laptops using Skype. They used a Slingbox, a popular "gadgety" device that enables you to watch their home TV live from their PC using streaming over IP technology. AirCell also pointed to passengers logging into their corporate VPNs to access e-mail, watching live news, entertainment, and sporting event broadcasts. JetBlue, (with each seat having its own TV) eat your heart out! ;)

One airline industry observer noted the modularity of AirCell's system and commented on an airline's ability to select the specific connectivity features they offer. "By providing almost every ground-based connection option (CDMA, GSM, Wi-Fi) and the means to control it, the AirCell approach would let airlines choose their solution to in-flight telephony," stated Terry Wiseman, Publisher, AIRFAX.com. "Choice is the operable word here."

Airline executives also predicted that since passengers will bring their own hardware and have wireless access to the internet, AirCell Broadband will become a very important aspect of an airline's ability to entertain & inform its passengers in-flight. Passengers get exactly what they want, and the airline isn't forced into being a perpetual programmer and equipment provider.

Technological Firsts
AirCell has accumulated hundreds of hours of hands-on flight test experience with airborne wireless broadband, and the just-completed demonstration program marked a number of important technological firsts achieved by the company.

  • The first end-to-end demonstration of wireless broadband using a direct air-to-ground link
  • The first use of advanced wireless technology for a broadband air-to-ground link
  • The first support of CDMA, GSM, VoIP and Wi-Fi over a common air-to-ground pipe
  • The smallest broadband antenna ever used in aviation (weighs 5 ounces; 4" tall)
  • The highest speeds, altitudes and distances ever reached for EVDO technology

"We accomplished a great deal, to the amazement of the ground-based wireless community, who had no idea all this could be done so effectively using AirCell's expertise applying advanced cellular technology to the airborne environment," said Joe M. Cruz, AirCell Vice President, Engineering, and CTO.

The flight demonstration program showcased an advanced technology prototype of the AirCell Broadband System. Key demonstration system components and technical features included:
  • A Broadband Air-to-Ground Link that uses custom-designed EVDO wireless technology. The link provides a high-speed connection directly from the aircraft to the ground, delivering a "to-the-seat" user experience similar to a DSL link on the ground.
  • A Cabin Telecommunications Router (CTR) that provides a high-speed, in-cabin hotspot for WiFi-equipped devices (802.11b/g) including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones.
  • Multiple Cabin Picocells supporting CDMA and GSM voice communications for commercial cell phones.

AirCell claims to be the only company ever to receive regulatory approval to use cellular frequencies for airborne telecommunications. Operating over a new, next-generation digital network in North America, the AirCell Broadband System is targeted for commercial deployment in 2007. Pending the acquisition of a spectrum license from the FCC, the AirCell network will initially cover the continental U.S. and will be expandable to include Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. My only complant? Two years? I can't wait two years to fly and surf, Skype, check email, post blog entries, etc.

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