Yes, we have probably mentioned the above sentiment a few times too many in the past, but it is becoming truer each day more technologies and channels are developed each year. Rewind to an article in AVIONICS magazine a couple year back when they noted: “Airlines and other users also want access to sub channels like mobile/cellular (GSM, GPRS, UMTS) networks, Wi-Fi, Wi-MAX and non-satcom broadband as a way to avoid UHF communications expense, particularly for ground operations. Such solutions, however, will require the integration of the aircraft with an airline’s IT network.” This observation is spot-on and this Hot Topic deals with the message in their second sentence. Bandwidth to and from the aircraft has historically been pricey, but it looks like a low cost, ground connectivity solution is now becoming a reality. And it has the potential to exist far cheaper than an airborne solution, while possibly driving the on-ground cost competition in the same direction. The solution is called GateSync, the result of a venture proffered by Thales, Proximetry, and CSC, and has been quietly tested in Europe and San Diego CA. Running on Wi-MAX, Wi-FI, and 3G, the airport wireless network basically talks to aircraft when the squat switch is activated. This might be a good time to mention that the system’s ground network infrastructure does not have to be in the airport on the airport property because of the longer range characteristics of Wi-MAX (see below).

A few years back when we interviewed Proximetry in the WAEA Thales booth, we got their pitch on their wireless connectivity and a slick antenna that easily fit in a window on each side of an airplane. We pegged them as RF types. That was not totally incorrect, however, but it is the Proximetry software that is the key to the kingdom here. If you check their website, note that the focus in on wireless network recourses that use “intelligent provisioning that aligns network resource priorities to users and devices, dynamic bandwidth allocation that assures services meet user expectations, and predictive routing and resource configuration that maximizes throughput.” In other words, it’s the network knowledge that’s key here. In an interview with CSC AirSync, Managing Director, Sergio von Borries, he told IFExpress: “We will be offering a wireless connectivity service that will challenge all forms of on-ground, digital communication to and from the on-ground aircraft. CSC will be handling the connectivity service and ground network infrastructure, while Thales has the ETWLU and antennae (airplane) hardware side, all of which are bridged by Proximetry software that resides on both ends of the link.”

The accompanying graphic pictorially sets the stage for almost any and every airline application. Aside from the hub-and -spoke analogy, the airline or third party supplier (think content) has the ability to deliver and monitor data to and from aircraft via a Network Operations Center virtual console on or remotely from the airport. Data users have access via the airline’s networks or via CSC’s global private network. There is even an interesting case (controlled by the network and Proximetry software) that uses another airline aircraft to “talk” plane to plane, in a ground situation where the airport network service does not exist. In all this, think “content’ because it is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, driver for implementation. No doubt, if you build a ground pipe, the applications, airline, aircraft, and passenger will come. Since the viability of an off-airport installation is real, there are some genuine cost and process efficiency gains for the airline, not to mention we are talking about servers, routers and multi-mode wireless hardware, all of which is industry standard and is COTS – as are Internet connections.

We queried Mr. von Borris about two additional subjects, standards and costs and he told IFExpress:

Standards: “My point is that we have worked VERY HARD to ensure that GateSync is all about industry standards – especially wireless networks and carrier standards. Gatelink is a specific solution and implementation (mainly using WiFi) and it has proven not to be scalable in terms of number of concurrent airplanes served, bandwidth and link integrity/reliability. These are indeed issues we believe we have bridged by having the domain expertise and intrinsic knowledge of these standards.”

Costs: ” As for service and implementation costs, the point is that pricing based on costs is exactly how current wireless solutions have not been able to close their business case and scale. Our approach is integrated across multiple OPTIMIZED wireless modes, and it is the only wireless offering that brings Quality of Service and Service Level Guarantees that help close the business case.”

There are still a lot of questions to be answered like aircraft hardware and service costs, scalability, and so on. We would have liked to see a price-per-bit analysis but there is jut no way to nail this number down without being able to analyze how each airline uses and costs the existing “tennis shoe” networks, value of total data (now and later), other processes and applications benefitting, not to mention a valuation of new passenger, maintenance and flight operations related services. Watch this one, Thales CSC, and Proximetry have a real winner here and this looks to be the right team at the right time. We think they need to get a bit tighter with the buy-in of other infrastructure players and this dog will hunt!

Wi-Max: Wi-MAX is an IP based, wireless broadband access technology that provides performance similar to 802.11/Wi-Fi networks with the coverage and service quality of cellular networks. The Wi-MAX acronym means “Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (Wi-MAX) and provides broadband access from 3 to 10 miles for mobile platforms.

For more info here is the Gatesync Brochure.