Mile-high Wi-Fi: Charlotte startup ready to bring 4G Internet to business jets

Gary TesterLatest News

CHARLOTTE, NC — 10 OCTOBER 2014 — Ryan Stone has waited three years for this: to tell the business aviation world his startup can put high-speed internet access on their airplanes.

Stone, president of SmartSky Networks, this week revealed the aviation communications provider he co-founded is ready to launch SmartSky 4G, a product it’s calling “the nation’s first airborne 4G LTE-based network.”

SmartSky’s technology intends to deliver 10 times the typical speed and capacity of data networks currently available. Using an air-to-ground data link, the network will access 60 MHz of spectrum, compared with the 4MHz of spectrum most in-flight Internet connections use today.

“This is going to be really, really important,” Stone told me in an interview this week. “We’ve been developing this in stealth mode for three years. It feels good to finally be able to share.”

SmartSky 4G will begin beta testing with select customers next year and roll out nationwide commercial service in 2016. The service will at first target private business jets and corporate fleets. Eventually, the company hopes to sell access to commercial airlines, too. SmartSky says it will charge a subscription fee similar to other Internet service providers.
SmartSky will officially unveil its offerings at the 2014 National Business Aviation Association convention in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 21-23.

The Charlotte-based company launched three years ago. Stone, the co-founder of business aviation company Jetpool, realized how valuable it would be to his customers if they could access the same high-speed Internet networks in the sky that were available on the ground. But such a service wasn’t available.

So began a lengthy journey to find partners, develop proprietary technology and access enough spectrum to make the vision reality. Stone says he and his partners sought out heavy hitters in the industry to create the company. Among their partners are Haynes Griffin, a former Vanguard Cellular executive now serving as SmartSky’s CEO, and Reed Hundt, a former FCC chairman who is SmartSky’s vice chairman.

“We recognized that the aviation industry was substantially underserved, and we started work over three years ago on our plan to offer full 4G capability to the aviation market,” Griffin says in the company’s press release.

“We are implementing an innovative use of wireless spectrum using cutting-edge antenna and communications technologies that does not require an FCC rules change or waiver,” Hundt says. “We believe this will be the most cost-effective, high-bandwidth national network ever built in the United States.”

SmartSky also teamed with Harris Corp. (NYSE:HRS), an international communications and information-technology company, for its experience deploying advanced radio technology and networks for the space program as well as for military and civil aviation.

The SmartSky 4G network will connect aircraft to ground antennas, rather than satellites in orbit. Stone says this will allow for real-time sharing of data so users on a flight can video chat without delays. The network will be based on targeted signals to aircraft using the network.

“It’s almost like we’re using a laser and everyone else is using a flashlight,” Stone says.

SmartSky will be among the first providers in the market. GoGo, a popular in-flight Wi-Fi provider on commercial airlines, is competing in the space. And SmartSky expects major providers, such as AT&T, to compete, too.

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