Mary, why isn't Voyant on your grapevine? It's a question I've been asked on this blog and via personal email a number of times. The fact is I've been meaning to write about Voyant for at least six months, ever since the company hit the World Airline Entertainment Association's annual conference and exhibition in Long Beach and announced plans to deliver 10-35Mbit/sec to aircraft "at a cost per bit at least ten times less than that of a satellite-based system".
Oh yes, and did I forget to mention that Voyant wants to provide this service over an air-to-ground (ATG) link? Now, before you remind me about the FCC's 2006 ATG spectrum auction and its winning bidders (Aircell and LiveTV), let me tell you that California-based Voyant isn't looking to tread on the 4MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band allocated to ATG services.
Instead Voyant is looking to exploit open access spectrum.
Verizon paid billions to buy spectrum in the 700MHz C-block, and must meet open-access requirements.
Voyant says it hasn't detailed anything specific about going after the C-block. In any case, it intends to start building up a network of ground stations by 2010.
Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein saw this coming. "Is there a way that another company can find or acquire in auction or somehow get their hands on spectrum in auction, the answer is theoretically yes," Blumenstein told me in 2007 when an entity called AirStellar emerged from obscurity to disclose plans for offering a "global" air-to-ground connectivity solution that would be supplemented by satellite-based service for transoceanic coverage.
However, unless the spectrum is designated for air-to-ground, said Blumenstein at the time, "the price of it becomes astronomically high".
And indeed Blumenstein continues to maintain the view that dedicated ATG is necessary for broadband. "We long ago determined that a key ingredient in anything you do with spectrum has to be a clear channel nationwide that provides a link between the airplane and the ground," he said in a recent interview that I will continue to bleed dry until, well, all the blood is gone.
He adds: "There is always someone out there that may develop a better mousetrap. I think that's the hybrid system [about which, we discussed here]."
But back to Voyant. At present, Europe looks like the most attractive haunt for the firm. "Things are progressing well with airlines, though we're watching the European airlines' financial gyrations closely," says Voyant chief marketing officer Steffan Koehler.
"We're looking more at overseas markets than at domestic US, so European and Asian airlines are very important to us. On the other hand, our technology partner, Harris clearly has a lot of strength in the US, and so we're certainly still involved here, too."
The whole key to Voyant's value proposition is the amount of bandwidth it intends to bring to the airplane. "If one truly believes that dial-up speeds will be sufficient for air passengers for the next 10 years, then Voyant isn't the right solution," says Koehler.
"On the other hand, if we look at the rate of increase of bandwidth consumption across the world, and also the presumption of always-on broadband connectivity, I think that Voyant's plan for 35Mbps per aircraft is the minimum we should be planning for."
Koehler gave a short presentation at the WAEA technical meeting last week. Check it out here. Voyant.pdf
Welcome to the grapevine, Voyant. So glad you could join us. Have you heard about our golden tickets?