ViaSat to Row 44: Watch where you point that thing (and AeroSat’s revelation!)

Are you getting tired of all the “will they, won’t they, can they, should they” conversation about Row 44′s pending launch of in-flight Internet on Boeing 737s operated by Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines? That would be a shame because we’re just getting started.

Okay, it’s clear that Row 44 is hell-bent to finally get trials going this month. And while the company continues to face opposition to its application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), it is acting rather unfazed by the whole business.

Southwest Airlines.jpg“Airline passenger trials are still on track, set to begin soon,” assures the firm.

Row 44 has probably got very good reason to be optimistic. After all it has a pretty hefty ally in its corner (hint, the low-cost airline starts with “S” and knows a thing or two about inside-the-beltway regulatory stuff).

That probably comes in pretty handy when rivals and would-be rivals are contesting your application to the FCC.

The last time we checked in with the FCC, LiveTV had filed a letter asking the regulator to require Row 44 to clearly demonstrate in writing how its system design would operate “on a non-interference basis”. This followed a series of prior objections from ViaSat.

I spoke yesterday to ViaSat director of regulatory affairs Daryl Hunter. “The LiveTV filing is indeed the latest filing on the Row 44 application that we are aware of, but it will likely not be the last one,” he says. “It will take some time for the FCC, and possibly others in the industry, to consider our December 8 ‘Interference Analysis’ filing.”

I guess you can read between the lines on this one. Don’t be surprised if ViaSat submits another filing in the short-term. The company may make the FCC aware of a LA Times article about a Row 44 demo flight at International CES last week that ViaSat believes highlights two of its concerns – loss of service (and/or potential adjacent satellite interference) during banking, and inability of the antenna to remain properly pointed in the dynamic airplane operating environment (i.e., during turbulence and other maneuvers).

The LA Times piece would join Runway Girl as one of the exhibits before the FCC.

Interestingly, like Row 44, ViaSat has picked AeroSat as its antenna maker. And even more interesting is the fact that AeroSat is now touting its own airborne Internet system that is independent of satellite transmissions. You can be sure we’re going to talk more about this later, but here is some key AeroSat online info:

Broadband connectivity delivered at blazing speed – anywhere in the world – at a fraction of the cost. AeroSat’s new airborne Internet system is poised to make this dream a reality. Building on our existing expertise and patented technology, we are currently developing a broadband system that is independent of satellite transmissions. Instead, the system utilizes several high-capacity ground stations and aircraft equipped with smaller, less expensive antenna systems to create an aircraft-to-aircraft relay communications system. This aircraft network system provides two-way, high-speed Internet connectivity at up to 45Mpbs to aircraft for passengers, crew and air traffic control centers.

Global reach.

Over the North Atlantic Ocean, only seven suitably spaced aircraft would be required to provide unbroken air-to-air connectivity for all aircraft within a 300-mile range of each other.

As a result, Airborne Internet has the potential to form the basis of a general purpose, broadband aviation communications network capable of supporting in-flight entertainment and passenger communications, general air transport management, flight operations, maintenance, and safety and security communications.

But back to ViaSat. The company has also taken issue with what it insists is Row 44′s unauthorized transmissions.

“It is ViaSat’s belief that Row 44 has no valid authorization to transmit from other than the single fixed location of Amherst, NH as identified in their application for Special Temporary Authority (STA) for antenna testing purposes. This STA does not authorize Row 44 to transmit from other locations or while airborne,” says Hunter.

Row 44 claims that their transmissions from other locations and while airborne are authorized by a Hughes experimental license and that this is appropriate as testing is being controlled and monitored by Hughes.

“In our various filings on the second topic, ViaSat has pointed out a number of areas where Row 44′s use of the Hughes license is not consistent with the parameters covered by the Hughes license grant. To this point, it’s quite possible that the antenna that is authorized by the Hughes experimental license (a very high performance General Dynamics parabolic dish antenna) would not have lost service or otherwise mis-pointed during the turbulence referenced in the LA Times article since that antenna uses a far more complex, robust and expensive pointing system than that used by the Row 44 antenna,” says Hunter.

“Additionally, we do not believe that Row 44′s use of the Hughes experimental license permits the sort of operations contemplated in the upcoming trials with Alaska and Southwest Airlines. Definitely, they can not charge passengers for the service.”

ViaSat has raised the issue of these alleged unauthorized operations with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. The FCC’s enforcement-related investigations are not public, so it is not possible to know where that stands.

I would love to get Row 44′s take on all of this. Love it! But they already know that. 

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