Delivering wifi from the sky

As our societies become increasingly reliant on connectivity, aerospace innovators are coming up with new ways to supply wifi to areas where infrastructure may be inadequate.

The Airborne Wireless Network aims to turn connectivity into a revenue-centre for airlines by linking aircraft flying over head as part of a high-speed broadband airborne wireless network.

Each plane participating in the network would act as an airborne repeater or router, sending and receiving broadband signals from one aircraft to the next and creating a digital information superhighway in the sky. AWN doesn’t intend to target consumers directly, but rather supply capacity to internet service providers and telephone companies while sharing the benefits with the airlines who would supply the aircraft assets.

The idea originated from Marius de Mos, who worked on the team which developed the first FAA approved airborne in-cabin wireless telephone service: Airfone. He currently serves as VP technical affairs and development at AWN. He patented the idea to use the framework of aircraft flying in the skies to boost connectivity capacity in 2001, even before the technology to support such a framework had matured and at a time when inflight connectivity suffered a set-back due to airline industry conditions following the attacks of 9/11.

Now the program benefits from more advanced technology infrastructure both on the ground and in the air.

Earle Olson, VP industry affairs at AWN, who in his 36 year career in business development has worked on airborne applications, including inflight entertainment and networking, tells us the capacity and smaller size of modern ARINC boxes makes adoption and deployment of a network easier, including on business and private executive jets.

Jason de Mos,VP of business development and aviation compliance at AWN explains that AWN extends an air-to-ground network:

“It’s completely independent of satellite communication. Bringing the signal to 35,000 feet allows for much broader bandwidth. It’s a supplement. We can provide service where satellites can’t at much higher rates and with more bandwidth. All of the aircraft are interconnected. They can tap into satellites, but it’s not necessarily a requirement.”

Deploying AWN infrastructure would only be a fraction of the costs of other connectivity expansion programs underway, such as the development of LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and MEO (Medium Earth Orbit) satellite frameworks. AWN also has an advantage in ease of maintenance because the equipment lands regularly and can be readily repaired as needed. As a result, AWN would avoid generating a higher amount of space junk in orbit.

IFC benefit

De Mos explains that AWN is not interested in becoming an Inflight Connectivity supplier, though existing suppliers and their airline customers can benefit from the connections.

“[Inflight wifi] is a bi-product, so IFC providers can tap into the network. It’s essentially a flying pipeline or super highway, but that’s not our primary business model. Essentially, we’d be supporting services to Telcos and ISPs.

“IFC providers can connect to [the service], but it’s also an additional source of revenue for airlines. When you talk about airlines pulling magazines out of seat pockets and pinching pennies to be profitable, they could benefit from carrying our data traffic. Airlines can make some money from that. It’s an income source for doing what they already do.”

Olson adds:

“First and foremost, it’s a complimentary service. It’s not a competitive scenario [with IFC suppliers]. It’s an improvement, with a fairly agnostic signal. Airlines could save money and benefit from reduced latency, inherent in a direct connection to a satellite.”

The AWN program completed its Proof of Concept flight tests in summer of last year, using two Boeing 767 aircraft with a temporary mobile mast system to replicate a communications tower.

This December, AWN announced that it had struck a Support Agreement with GE Aviation, to accelerate the development of its Hybrid Radio and Free-Optics Communication system.

Michael Warren, CEO of ABWN says:

“The expertise provided by GE Aviation, which will arrange for tactical-grade Inertial Reference Units (IRU) with embedded GPS that can be utilized for heading, pointing, attitude, and stabilization for the System, should help assure a successful result.”

The idea of using aircraft to extend our global connectivity framework is an attractive one.

This past November, Airbus announced its won partnership with Facebook to develop a high altitude platform station (HAPS) broadband connectivity system, under a program named Aquila.

Related reading:

Project Loon successfully uses wind patterns to move Internet across continents

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