Stratosphere emerging as the next big Internet battleground


News Analysis MIKE DANO, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies


Amid a dramatic rise in air travel as pandemic restrictions recede, a growing number of companies are hoping to sell high-speed Internet connections to all those airborne Web surfers. Concurrently, other companies are hoping to beam Internet connections into hard-to-reach areas on the ground from various aircraft in those same altitudes.

The developments are noteworthy considering Internet providers have long fought with each other using networks on the ground, but recently expanded that fight into space via low Earth orbit (LEO) Internet satellite networks. Now, though, the Earth’s stratosphere – an area roughly 6-12 miles above the planet’s surface and traditionally the domain of commercial airliners, high-altitude blimps and other such aircraft – is evolving into another Internet battleground.

The newest competitor flying into the market is SmartSky. After years of fits and starts, the company recently announced it will switch on its air-to-ground inflight Internet service. The company touts coverage of 50% of business aviation flight hours in the continental United States, and expects that figure to grow to up to 90% by the end of this year.

According to AIN, SmartSky has demonstrated maximum connection speeds up to 15 Mbit/s, with consistent service in the range of 5 to 8 Mbits.

Internet from the ground to the air

But SmartSky isn’t the only newcomer to the market. Dublin-based Aeronet Global Communications has been petitioning the FCC in the US to authorize spectrum for its proposed Gigabit “Internet of the sky” service.

“Aeronet will bring new competition into the aviation market through the introduction of a new connectivity technology, capable of handling the significant demand for high-speed broadband on each equipped aircraft,” the company told the FCC in 2019. “Consumers will be able to access their own HD content, online and streaming applications, and data services, at terrestrial equivalent speeds and latency, as they travel.”

Specifically, the company is touting its scheduled dynamic datalink (SDDL) technology that it says can transmit large volumes of data over long distances by establishing point-to-point networks with narrow-beam spectrum.

“In March 2017, Aeronet successfully achieved continuous 1 Gbit/s download and upload speeds in its test aircraft in Ireland,” the company told the FCC. “This alpha test employed proprietary discovery and tracking techniques for the ground station to establish and maintain the air-to-ground SDDL. Aeronet has achieved similar and higher speed results during beta testing of the maritime application of its SDDLs off the coast of Florida. In these beta tests during 2018, Aeronet achieved 3 Gbit/s speeds and successfully switched between two SDDLs with near unnoticeable service interruption during handover. Aeronet has since installed further test ground stations in the Bahamas for expanded live environment service testing across multiple network nodes.”

Importantly, the FCC recently indicated it might be open to Aeronet’s proposals, which call for Aeronet operations in the 70/80/90GHz bands. Specifically, the FCC said it would “further develop the record on Aeronet’s proposal” by soliciting comments on the topic.

However, the agency stopped short of an outright approval of Aeronet ‘s plans, and instead said it would merely seek further comments on the matter.

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