Staying grounded

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Haynes Griffin, SmartSky Networks CEO, on his new air-to-ground network and its transformative potential for the sector

On 28 September 2016 SmartSky Networks took a giant step in its bid to transform broadband connectivity for business aviation when the company received FCC certification for its patented spectrum reuse radio technology. With this hurdle cleared, and with the FAA DO-160 certification already in the bag, the one remaining step is to go through the normal process of getting the STC on each model type for any radio that has to go into the aircraft, a process that is well underway. SmartSky has contracts in place to obtain STCs for almost 9,000 aircraft once complete. According to SmartSky Chairman and CEO Haynes Griffin, the SmartSky connectivity solution is going to be available on everything from Bombardier Global 6000s right on down to very light jets and turboprops.

Q: How did the company get started?

A: We got started back in 2011 with the acquisition of a patent application that dates back to 2005 relating to in-flight aviation. This was the first of a number of advances that enabled us to solve one of the longest standing issues facing business aviation, namely how to offer a broadband connection while in flight that would combine real broadband speeds and a low signal latency with an affordable price.

Our solution is a breakthrough in air to ground communications. It is clear that the aviation industry has a growing yet unfilled need for connectivity. The reason this problem has not previously been solved is that a telecom carrier would never stop using a large block of spectrum on the ground in order to make it available for use in the air. Despite its value in the air, it’s value for use on the ground would be 100 or even 1000 times greater.

Q: So how did youd get around this problem?

A: This is where our breakthrough comes in. While others in the industry have for many years been looking toward the long, perhaps permanently stalled 14 GHz auction, we for the last five years have been developing a technology that enables spectrum re-use. Through the evolution of our robust and growing portfolio of 20 granted patents, we have developed a technology that allows us to re-use spectrum in that air without interfering with its use on the ground. We call it the layer cake effect. So instead of consuming the whole of the available bandwidth, we can use it in the top layer, leaving the bottom layer completely unaffected for traditional terrestrial communications.

The culmination of this 5 year effort is the recently announced FCC certification that you mentioned earlier, confirming that because of our technology we can indeed do all this within the FCC’s rules.

When we began this process years ago, we went outside the traditional telecom industry to prominent aerospace contractor Harris Corporation to help us develop the radio and technology to exploit first the original patent and along the way add significant additional patents. With the radio development complete and the FCC certification in hand, we are now beginning the process of rolling out the first ever high speed broadband air-to-ground network. This means that we will be bringing to aviation, for the first time, all the benefits of high speed broadband connectivity. So users in the cabin will be able to do video conferencing and streaming of movies and news over the internet in an experience much like in their office or home and they will also have access to the kinds of apps that have become so important to consumers and businesses on the ground.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your own background?

A: I began in the wireless industry in 1983 as the founding CEO of a cellular company that operated systems on the east coast from New England to Florida. In 1999, we later sold to AT&T and I have maintained an interest in telecom ever since in various ways.

Q: What kind of throughput are you expecting from your air-to-ground system once it is being used in earnest?

A: We prefer not to quote speeds. What the industry typically does when it refers to broadband speeds is to quote the peak number, which over states the typical user experience and while technically accurate we feel is misleading. What is more meaningful is to explain that the user experience with our system will be very much like the experience our customer would have in their home or office.

Q: How do you see yourself in comparison to satellite services?

A: Satellite equipment, because of size and weight, can be used by only about 22% of the Business Aviation market. By contrast, our system will fit easily on Business Aviation aircraft from single engine turboprops up to large cabin aircraft.

Moreover, it is clear that we are complimentary to rather than competitive with satellite. Customers that already have satellite enabled are telling us they want to add our system to give them both system redundancy as well as the cost and connectivity benefits of our air-to ground network while they are over the continental US. We see this system becoming standard equipment on most business aviation aircraft irrespective of whether they have satellite broadband or not. They can use our system where it is available and then switch to satellite for an over the water trip.

Q: How much of a difference do you think SmartSky can make?

A: The most important point about our air-to-ground system is that it enables the aviation sector to participate in the internet age at last. This will bring the kinds of tools that terrestrial businesses have enjoyed for years. Offering true broadband connectivity to the cabin is important, but just as important is bringing that broadband connectivity to the cockpit and the airframe.

This real time connectivity will be a tremendous benefit both to pilots and to the maintenance teams responsible for business aviation aircraft. Owners and operators too will benefit such as by enabling greater fuel efficiencies as ground based teams and pilots get real time diagnostics on operational matters such as engine performance and fuel usage. For example, with the right apps to support them, they can adjust engine and flight parameters in real time to reduce fuel burn. We think this could save an operator between 7% and 12% annually. This is obviously a very significant savings. We are announcing a flight path optimization algorithm for use with real time diagnostics that will make these kinds of savings very achievable.

As another example, jet engine manufacturers tell us they believe real time engine monitoring will save on maintenance and extend engine life which of course could also translate into tremendous savings.

Clearly, these kinds of fuel and maintenance savings can be expected to have a very strong appeal across all Business Aviation, from light jets and turboprops up to the largest airframes. You can see why we expect to see a very strong demand for the SmartSky system.

The historic progression of communications in aviation started out with just voice radio. Then later came satellite communications which was a big improvement. But air-to-ground will always have significant inherent advantages over satellite, providing a combination which is faster, better and cheaper. Our advance moves business aviation into the low cost, high bandwidth era and that will be transformational in the air just like it was on the ground. In the process, we have assembled an iconic list of industry partners that are joining us in the roll out of this exciting new network, both OEMs like Textron and Bombardier and other prominent partners such as Duncan Aviation, SatCom Direct, Jet Aviation, Chicago Jet Group, Clay Lacy, Standard Aero, Pentastar, West Star and Pro Star.

We are building sites now and the initial roll out of the nationwide network will complete by third quarter 2017. We are deploying our own equipment nationwide, so this will be entirely our own network. We are not piggy backing our service on any other operator’s network. That means we can control the network, ensure the very best customer experience and grow the network over time to meet growing demand.”