In-flight connectivity “mistruths” and “untold facts” – that’s what AirCell believes is floating around the industry right now, and being broadcast by numerous media outlets. Hoping to quiet the “great deal of noise” created by airlines and communications providers – especially in the wake of an announcement that Southwest Airlines will test Row 44’s Ku-band offering – the Colorado-based firm offered to set the record straight by giving me a one-on-one interview with president and CEO Jack Blumenstein.
Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity because, frankly, I can’t think of a better topic with which to transition my blog from Blogspot to Flight Global than in-flight entertainment\communications. In the spirit of equality, I gave Row 44 the opportunity to respond. And CEO John Guidon was generous enough to do just that. So let’s get started, shall we? AirCell will provide airborne connectivity in North America over an air-to-ground link. American Airlines is to be the first out of the gate with connectivity tested onboard its transcontinental Boeing 767-200s. This will be followed by fleet-wide installations on Virgin America’s Airbus A320s. The decision to offer ATG service versus a satellite-based solution comes after “significant” evaluation of Ku-band in the region and a fair amount of commercial work with Iridium. “From an airline satcom perspective, we have kept a very close eye on the whole range of options. What led us to direct air-to-ground in North America [was that] none of those options now or in the foreseeable future, despite all the smoke and mirrors out there, make sense for North America,” says Blumenstein.
He adds: “We hired some people who do heavy-duty satcom work for all the big defence contractors and asked them to study this and they said ‘no, nobody is going to be out there turning water to wine; it doesn’t work that way”.
A test of Row 44’s system onboard four Southwest 737s, slated to occur mid-year, will help clarify what is feasible. But AirCell believes questions remain about the system. “There are two things that one needs to look for on the way to that – an antenna certified by the US FCC and FAA. The only thing I know of with Row 44 is temporary authority on a month-to-month basis to do ground trials. They don’t have the authority to fly anything at least from [what we see] on the public record.”
“Is there a basis that someone might do a one-airplane trial with temporary authority? I guess it’s possible,” Blumenstein says sceptically. But he insists the Row 44 system “will be heavier, more expensive, with less capacity to service the North American market”.
Wow. Those are some heavy claims! What does Guidon have to say about this? FAA certification “will be in place before the trial,” he assures, adding that in terms of the FCC, the company has “obeyed all of the FCC regulations and rules [and] we simply need to get an operating license for a mobile station.
“Row 44 is by far the cleanest flying terminal – in terms of obeying the rules – to have ever been developed. Compared with any previous satellite effort, like Connexion or whomever else, we obey the letter of all the sections of the FCC code, but we do require the license to operate the mobile systems.”
He adds: “Rather than engaging in a war of words, we’re circumspect about what we say in our releases to the public and we prefer to let our actions speak for us. We cordially suggest that Jack [Blumenstein] might follow the same policy.”
Champions of Ku-band, which is used globally for satellite broadcasting, say the service is ideal for high-data rate communications, and is less susceptible to electrical interference problems. Ku-band offerings may make sense for international communications should some newly proposed antennas prove out, says AirCell. In that case, AirCell would look to offer a seamless service, whereas ATG would be used in North America, and a viable satellite solution overseas.
Blumenstein reveals that AirCell continues to “press our case with Southwest” and “very much hope that someday they will be our customer”. He says: “We know we can do the things they want. They are looking to see if Row 44 and a Ku-band solution are what they want. Once they’ve done that trial, we’ll see where things go. Frankly, they don’t need to do a trial. As is quite clear, American is their trial with us. They can climb on an American aircraft very soon and experience our service.”
Some industry players worry that a ground network will suffer capacity constraints, allowing only a limited number of passengers to use the service onboard. Blumenstein discounts this, saying: “The people who have expressed those concerns are people who have a strong vested interest in slowing us down until they can do something in the future. The reality is the exact opposite.”
Additionally, he says, AirCell is “already beginning the planning for [and] upgrade that will give a five-times increase in in-put.”
Row 44′s Guidon, meanwhile, says the firm’s system “doesn’t suffer from congestion and the only way to do this without a congestion problem is really a satellite”.
Okay. There is so much more to say here (about service speeds, etc), but it’s 6pm and I’m over-due on my first blog post for Flight. So we’ll tackle that another time. But for now – welcome to Runway Girl!
First photo of AirCell’s cell network tower across the USA; second of Row 44 logo; third of AirCell installation on American 767)