Smaller aircraft flying over the USA officially have options for inflight wifi connectivity. After securing the necessary STC and PMA certifications from the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year upstart provider SmartSky officially launched its SmartSky LiTE product this week at the Aircraft Electronics Association conference in Las Vegas. The offering targets aircraft with MTOW below 19,000 pounds – light jets and smaller turboprops – with a flat-rate pricing scheme.
The hardware costs are relatively low – just $50,000 for the full SmartSKy LiTE hardware kit – and usage is priced on an hourly basis. Customers will pay $75 per hour online with a 10 hour per month minimum. That rate includes unlimited bandwidth for up to six devices at a time. The SmartSky network uses unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum, beam forming and frequency reuse technology to deliver what the company believes is the fastest connections available to the smaller aircraft today. The company expects to deliver hardware for customers in early 2019, though the necessary STC work for specific aircraft types could vary based on FAA requirements.
The air-to-ground (ATG) network comes with sufficient bandwidth to support streaming content on board. Passengers can use their existing media accounts to watch whatever they want. The low-latency solution also makes voice or video calling a viable option for passengers on board.
The connectivity value proposition also extends forward to the flight deck. SmartSky LiTE customers will also be able to access Skytelligence-powered applications from other providers such as those designed to optimize fuel management, maximize flight planning efficiencies, monitor weather or access dynamically optimized re-routing recommendations.
“The pilot will now have the connectivity to see weather in high-definition and optimally adjust the flight plan, in real time, while the family streams the latest movie, surfs the web or video chats,” says company President Ryan Stone.
Building the ground network
Getting the kit on a plane is a regulatory challenge. Getting the ground network built out is more of a logistical one. A year ago the company operated on just a handful of cell towers in Florida, the Midwest and near New York City. Today more than half the national tower footprint is deployed. For the remaining towers the longer lead time work of permitting and backhaul connectivity is near 100% complete. The deployment pace is impressive, with 15% of those build outs finishing in the past 8 weeks. The company is confident that it will realize nationwide coverage in 2018.
SmartSky competes with Gogo in delivering ATG connectivity to business aviation aircraft and the latter has a significant head start in the race. Gogo’s latest generation AVANCE L5 platform just surpassed its 100th installation and expects to hit 500 planes carrying the kit by the end of 2018. While L5 is ostensibly targeted towards larger aircraft the L3 platform is also available for smaller planes. The AVANCE platform currently uses the Gogo Biz 4G network, with limited spectrum available. Gogo’s ATG-NG push will have it also flying with beam forming and unlicensed spectrum; the service is expected to be available later this year.