As avid readers will testify, we love a musically-themed blog here at Valour Consultancy. Over the years, we’ve managed to cram in a reference to The Power by SNAP!, twice paid homage to The Beatles (here and here), talked about how seatback IFE is Stayin’ Alive and basked in the glory of Bowie’s Sound and Vision. This time, The Jackson 5 provide the inspiration for a blog that picks up on the news that SkyFive has secured three new investment partners and summarises efforts to build out new Air-to-Ground (ATG) networks in different parts of the world.
What a young Michael Jackson failed to mention in ABC, however, is that, if ATG networks were deployed in just 25 countries/clusters, it is estimated that it would be possible to cover some 80% of the world’s flight routes. So where do these candidate clusters lie, I hear you ask? Though commercial aviation will be the primary driver of adoption in almost all cases, we provide the answers you’re looking for with a business aviation slant given the recent release of our report on the adoption of in-flight connectivity in this market. And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite, clickable section headings provide a relevant musical backdrop to the discussion.
In accounting for around 65% of the word’s business aircraft, North America, and more specifically, the United States, is by far the biggest opportunity for ATG network providers. No wonder then that Gogo and SmartSky Networks are going head-to-head in a battle for supremacy.
Gogo’s ATG journey began back in 2006 when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctioned 4 MHz of radio wave spectrum in the 800 MHz band allocated to ATG services. Gogo won the rights to the exclusive 3 MHz block of frequencies and LiveTV, which was acquired by Thales in March 2014, won the remaining 1 MHz. In August 2012, Gogo acquired the Airfone business from LiveTV and with it, the 1 MHz spectrum license held by the latter. This gave Gogo total exclusivity in the 800 MHz band and a much-needed capacity boost. In the interests of clarity, the reader should note that Airfone was previously acquired by LiveTV in June 2008.
Gogo’s ATG network is based on a direct link to the aircraft from cell site towers located on the ground – much like a terrestrial cellular network. There are currently more than 250 cell sites located across the contiguous United States and parts of Alaska and Canada. With its antennas pointing skywards, each cell site is typically divided into six sectors for additional coverage and capacity. Each sector can, in most locations, provide, capacity to aircraft flying at 3,000 feet or above (this was lowered from 10,000 feet in July 2020). Gogo’s second-generation system (ATG-4), launched in November 2012, represents an upgrade from the Enhanced Voice-Data Optimised (EV-DO) Rev. A Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA)-based 3G protocol used for data transmission in the first-generation system, to EV-DO Rev. B. As a result, the maximum theoretical download speed increased from 3.1 Mbps to 9.8 Mbps. The same upgrade was introduced for business aviation in February 2015 via a new equipment package called ATG 8000. In business aviation, Gogo now refers to ATG-4 as Gogo Biz 4G even though it doesn’t actually utilise 4G cellular technology. ATG 8000 has now been largely superseded by AVANCE platform-based systems.
In September 2016, Gogo announced plans to deploy a new, next generation (“Next-gen”) ATG service during 2018. The then CEO, Michael Small, stated both its North American ground-based and global satellite networks had upgrade paths to support speeds of up to 100 Mbps using a system “suitable for just about any business aviation aircraft.” The new network was to use unlicensed spectrum, a proprietary modem and a new beam-forming antenna alongside Gogo’s existing first generation North American network and infrastructure, while leveraging Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology. However, after the US government implemented a trade ban on ZTE (which provides base station technology for the first-generation network and was slated to do likewise for Next-gen), Gogo was forced to abandon the delivery of its first 50 cell towers.
Since then, the company has changed tack and is now committed to the roll out of a new 5G network. Expectations were that it would be up and running in the second half of 2022 but full production volume of the 5G chips for its on-board modem will be delayed until mid-2023, owing to an issue discovered in “late-stage testing” of the equipment. Gogo has therefore indicated that it only expects to ship 15 of the new 5G antenna systems in 2022. Even so, buildout of the network has progressed quickly and in October 2022, the company announced that all 150 were now live. The network has been built on as many of existing cell site locations as possible and utilises unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz range, along with a proprietary modem and advanced beamforming technology. Gogo’s 5G infrastructure supports all spectrum types (licensed, shared, unlicensed) and bands (mid, high, low). Technology partners include Cisco, Airspan and FIRST RF. The latter brings its belly-mounted antenna technology to ensure connectivity with the existing 3G and “4G” networks, as well as the new 5G network.
Gogo intends for its existing 3G network to augment performance and provide redundancy for the new 5G network. Where there is no 5G coverage available, users will be automatically switched to the 3G network, especially in urban areas where there is likely to be “signal noise”. Gogo claims that this is similar to how wireless carriers provide redundancy and that users won’t know which network they are on.
In 2014, a new player formally announced its intent to offer ATG connectivity services in the United States. North-Carolina-based SmartSky Networks emerged from stealth mode during the 2014 National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) conference where it claimed it would be the first company to bring to market an airborne 4G OFDM-based ATG network. SmartSky’s proposition relies upon “spectrum reuse” of the 2.4 GHz unlicensed band, which allows for the utilisation of 60 MHz of available spectrum to deliver customers an on-ground type experience. It also incorporates 5G technologies.
The network has been designed from the ground up to serve the aviation industry and has several unique features. One being that half the available spectrum is dedicated to the return link making the system truly symmetrical as well as high-capacity and low-latency. SmartSky has amassed over 200 patents to optimise performance and began commercial service over the continental US in 2021. Nationwide coverage was completed in July 2022 and the firm has plans to expand into Canada, Alaska and Mexico in future. The network is engineered to guarantee coverage above 10,000 feet but the company also maintains that the system will also work below 10,000 feet in many locations where there is line of sight visibility to a tower.
After obtaining its first STC in 2018, the company has worked with MRO partners to significantly expand the number of aircraft types that can be fitted with its hardware. SmartSky has since received STCs for the Embraer 135 and 145, Bombardier Challenger 601/604/605/650, Gulfstream GIV, G450, GV, and G550, Cessna Citation Excel/XLS, Cessna Citation X, and King Air turboprop. Many more STCs are being worked on, including popular models from Gulfstream, Dassault Falcon, and the HondaJet which is operated by its fleet customer, Jet It. Another early adopter is flyExclusive, the world’s fourth largest private charter operator, which plans to install SmartSky connectivity on its fleet which includes the Gulfstream GIV-SP, Cessna Citation X, Citation Sovereign, Citation Excel/XLS, Citation CJ3/CJ3+, and Citation Encore models.
In March 2022, SmartSky filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Gogo, alleging that its 5G service and related hardware treads on four specific SmartSky patents. In response, Gogo has said that it believes the claims are entirely without merit and intends to vigorously defend itself against the allegations. The lawsuit is currently working its way through the courts and depending on the outcome, Gogo’s 5G network could either be cleared to fly or stopped in its tracks before it even gets off the ground.
In June 2014, Inmarsat announced its intention to build a fully integrated hybrid satellite and ATG network that utilises 30 MHz of S-band spectrum. The solution was soft launched in early 2019 with the International Airlines Group (IAG). Deutsche Telekom developed and runs the 4G ground portion of the network, which consists of 300 LTE cell towers located across Europe that are complimentary to the satellite portion. Initial network capacity was around 50 Gbps and this was boosted recently with the addition of further cell sites. This includes the installation of eight new sites in and around the North Sea; five being installed on offshore oil and gas platforms, two placed in offshore wind farms within the coastal waters of Germany and the Netherlands and another onshore in Norway.
Stakeholders are reportedly actively working on a roadmap to move EAN towards 5G. Once the requisite enabling hardware is available, current airline customers (British Airways, Iberia, Vueling, Aer Lingus and Aegean Airlines) reportedly have the flexibility to phase their transition to the 5G compatible network via an intermediate hybrid 4G/5G step, while future aircraft fleet rollouts will be kitted out directly with the hardware necessary to rely on 5G only. However, as is the case in China and despite a huge addressable market for ATG technology on European business jets, it seems unlikely that EAN will be opened up to private aviation. A major complication is the hybrid nature of the system and the requirement for an S-band fuselage antenna, which can pose a problem on smaller aircraft where mounting space is at a premium.
In China, a number of trials have taken place over the years on a handful of Chinese domestic aircraft. ZTE revealed in early 2013 that it had completed the world’s first commercial LTE-based ATG network test in cooperation with China’s Hainan Airlines. In collaboration with China Mobile, Air China has also tested ATG-based IFC in the country.
China Telecom Satellite (CTS) has built and tested a network of 30-40 cell towers, each capable of delivering around 120 Mbps, split into three beams that provide 40 Mbps to the aircraft. Beijing Weibang Yuanhang Wireless Technology Co., Ltd (Weibang) is understood to have also built a low-level proof of concept with the Civil Aviation Flight University of China in 2012.
To date, the various ATG trials in China are yet to convince the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) to give the go ahead to a full commercial roll out, but there seems to be some genuine momentum building as the country begins to embrace IFC. In 2020, Nokia spin-off, SkyFive, signed a partnership with Airbus’ China Innovation Centre (ACIC) to develop a 5G ATG solution for the Chinese aviation market. SkyFive is one of the delivery partners for the European Aviation Network (EAN) and in 2021, announced the creation of SkyFive Inflight Connectivity (Beijing) Co. Ltd., an independent sister company dedicated to developing the 5G ATG solution for the Chinese market. And in 2022, it was revealed that ACIC, had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China Mobile (Shanghai) Industrial Research Institute to jointly address the 5G ATG market in China based on an evolution of network and aircraft hardware from SkyFive.
Separately, ZTE and China Telecom are understood to have been running pilots for a 5G-based ATG service on three domestic routes out of Beijing. In September 2022, the network was reportedly given formal approval by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). Neither the ZTE nor SkyFive-based solutions are thought to be geared towards business aviation, however.
As well as having a large landmass and very large population, India is renowned for being a very cost sensitive market. In the context of IFC, this translates to airlines wanting to down aircraft for the minimum amount of time possible and to opt for cost-effective solutions and bandwidth. These points only add weight to the prospect of an ATG network being built in India that may also support business jets. However, to date, very little associated activity has taken place. The most prominent player to show any level of interest, at the time of writing, is SmartSky Networks, which submitted a public response to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) consultation paper on IFC in 2017. But the company is fully focussed on the recent launch of its US network and, as a foreign vendor, would need to comply with strict regulation to operate in India. It seems more likely that if an ATG network is to be established in India, that a local MNO, such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea or Jio (all of which have substantial subscriber bases and cell tower networks), will take a lead role in this space.
In Australia, Telstra tested a LTE-based ATG network called “Skinet” in 2014. The country’s largest telecommunications company mounted antennas to four terrestrial cell sites along the main commercial air corridor between Sydney and Melbourne. Its two test aircraft – a twin-propeller plane and a private Cessna jet – were able to establish and maintain consistent connections at an average download speed of approximately 10 Mbps.
More recently, SkyFive has been reported to be looking at establishing a presence in Australia. The firm has signed a MoU with leading rural and remote communication solutions provider, Pivotel, to undertake a detailed technical evaluation and proof-of-concept trial of SkyFive’s Direct-Air-To-Ground (DA2G) solution. The partnership will see Pivotel conduct tests in the 2GHz band at three locations, as well as within a 200 km corridor between Dubbo and Mount Piper after the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) granted Pivotel a scientific license in February 2022. If successful, the two companies plan to roll out a 100-site network on the east coast of Australia. The proposed network would cover a stretch from north Queensland to southern Victoria and across to Adelaide, incorporating major east coast regional centres. However, any rollout is reportedly subject to getting access to 2 x 15 MHz of spectrum in the 2 GHz band on a shared basis.
SkyFive is also active in New Zealand. In 2020, the company signed a MoU with The Broadtech Group, a technology engineering firm in Auckland, to perform a detailed technical evaluation and a proof-of-concept trial of DA2G, with intentions to progress towards a nationwide network rollout in the country. Buildout is initially being driven by a demand to connect air ambulance, search and rescue and police aircraft but SkyFive is in talks with airlines, as well as business and general aviation customers.
The Middle East is seen as another strong candidate for an ATG network, with similar traffic characteristics to Europe where Inmarsat has rolled out its hybrid S-band satellite/ATG solution. Nokia and Saudi Telecom Company subsidiary, STC Business, teamed up to launch a pilot LTE-based ATG network in Saudi Arabia in 2018 and tested the solution on a flight from Riyadh to Jeddah.
In August 2022, SkyFive was confirmed to be involved in the next phase of the project after revealing that its three new investment partners would allow it to expand its presence in the Middle East. Our understanding is that, in time, the network will expand to the countries surrounding Saudi Arabia, opening up the possibility of roaming between this and the neighbouring EAN.
Brazil has been mooted as a candidate for an ATG networks for some time although there is little evidence of any firm efforts to make this a reality. There is already a high volume of traffic between major cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Campinas, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte. Putting the necessary infrastructure in place would, however, be hugely challenging given the country’s topography. The northern part of Brazil is dominated by the basin of the Amazon River and its many tributaries, which occupies two-fifths of the country.
In June 2020, BT Group subsidiary, EE, reportedly signed an agreement with Nokia to build nationwide 4G LTE air-to-ground network for the emergency services across the United Kingdom. The network aims to facilitate uninterrupted coverage, enabling emergency services to communicate with their airborne colleagues. It is designed to enable uninterrupted high-speed broadband coverage for up to 300,000 emergency service personnel working above ground with a range from 500 feet up to 10,000 feet. It is worth mentioning that this is separate to the EAN, which also consists of cell site towers in the UK and in 29 other countries throughout Europe.
It has also been suggested that there could be potential in developing an ATG network in South Korea with the Seoul to Jeju Island route one of the most heavily trafficked in the world. To this end, SkyFive announced the creation of SkyFive Korea in August 2022 and intends to work with local partners to pursue opportunities to connect civil aircraft, helicopters, and future taxi drones in in the country.
Indonesia is another candidate country for ATG technology. It is the world’s fourth most populous nation with some 274 million inhabitants and is home to the second-fastest growing aviation industry after China. IATA has predicted that Indonesia will become the world’s fourth largest air travel market by 2036, while 355 million passengers are predicted to fly from and within the country by 2034. And whilst we’re aware of companies harbouring ATG ambitions in this particular regional market, we’re not yet at liberty to disclose who they are!