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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022
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Internet in the Sky

Airborne Wireless Network has a plan to bring better broadband connectivity to the masses. The Simi Valley company is creating a network that will use commercial aircraft as wireless relay stations. Connected to other aircraft as they fly the skies over the United States, this network would augment a ground-based internet service as well as for those aboard the aircraft. Jason de Mos, vice president of business development at Airborne, described the link as a virtual cable where multiple aircraft create a flying spider web of connectivity. “It takes a satellite and brings it down to 35,000 or 40,000 feet,” de Mos explained. The business model for Airborne Wireless is that of a broadband wholesaler selling bandwidth to internet service providers, telecom companies and even the airlines themselves. Additionally, inflight entertainment providers such as Gogo Inc. and Global Eagle Entertainment Inc. would find use for the service. Airborne Wireless believes that using in-flight planes as routers and repeater stations will create “a digital information superhighway in the sky” to fill voids in connectivity. “The company’s network, once developed, should provide low-cost, high-speed connectivity to rural areas, island nations, ships at sea (and) oil platforms, in addition to connectivity to commercial and private aircraft in flight,” according to a press release. According to de Mos, what the company is basically providing is a pipeline that anyone can connect into. “We have no interest in being an end-user biller; we simply are a broadband wholesaler,” he said. “We plug in the internet to the source and whoever wants to use that data can.” Niche connectivity De Mos envisions needing up to 500 aircraft with Airborne’s equipment aboard to create a wide enough network to cover the entire United States. That number includes planes that would be on the ground at any given time. Airborne executives have been in contact with airlines to gauge their interest in carrying the equipment. Earlier last month, De Mos, his father, Marius de Mos, the company’s vice president of technical affairs and development, and Chief Executive Mike Warren attended an aircraft summit in San Diego to connect with airlines. And Los Angeles-based Air Lease Corp., one of the largest aircraft leasing firms in the world and a 10 percent stakeholder in Airborne Wireless, has relationships with more than 90 airlines around the world, Jason de Mos said. De Mos, however, would not give a dollar figure on how much it would cost to build out the network. Airborne intends to get funding from its partners, which include Concept Development Inc., an Irvine firm that is helping with the manufacture of the equipment; Inflight Canada, in Montreal, that is doing the system installation; and Jet Midwest Inc., a Kansas City company that provides test aircraft. In theory, the company could also raise build-out capital on public markets because Airborne Wireless trades on the over-the-counter market. However, the market has not been kind to shares this year. The price dropped more than 99 percent, going from $1.94 on Jan. 2 to less than 1 cent on June 25. The price closed at less than a cent on July 3. Assuming the company can clear the technical and financial hurdles, the question remains on the potential size of the market it intends to fill. Bernard Borghei, co-founder and executive vice president of operations at Vertical Bridge in Boca Raton, Fla., the largest private operator of wireless communications infrastructure in the U.S., said that during his quarter century in the communication industry, he has heard a lot of different ideas on providing wireless broadband coverage using methods other than land-based towers. But these applications have always proven more expensive to deploy, maintain and expand, he said, not to mention that the companies behind them are competing against AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile US Inc. which all have their own robust networks. “Could these guys (at Airborne) find a niche and create a network that other providers will utilize, perhaps,” Borghei said. “Maybe some aspect of rural America, if they fall within the flying routes of these planes, can somehow find coverage and data services this way.” In-flight tests Last May, Airborne tested its proprietary equipment on two 767s by transmitting signals through the windows so as not to do any modifications to the interior. Using a ground station, Airborne was able to demonstrate its radio frequency equipment by sending a Skype call from the ground to one of the airplanes, then between the airplanes and back to the ground station. The next tests will be done in Bakersfield using smaller Cessna 172 aircraft and lasers in order to have higher signal rates between the aircraft. By using smaller planes that are susceptible to turbulence and bouncing around, as opposed to the stable platform of a 767, Airborne can better show its ability to connect the lasers that create a 10-gigabyte broadband connection. After the Cessna tests, the company will move on to a 20-aircraft test using production equipment. It is anticipated to do those tests next year, de Mos said, adding that after those tests comes the rollout of the broadband service. If all goes according to plan, the rollout could come as early as next year. “We are confident but are not willing to commit to a date,” de Mos said. “We are heads down in development and continuing down that road.” Satellites loom as the main competition to Airborne’s idea of using aircraft. Billionaire Elon Musk has proposed Starlink, a network of more than 4,000 mini satellites to supply low-cost, high-speed Internet connections, while technology startup OneWeb Ltd. has plans for a similar network. One of Sir Richard Branson’s companies, Virgin Galactic, would take the satellites into low-earth orbit. Samsung, Boeing Co. and Telesat also have looked to create satellite systems for internet access. Also, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., the parent of Google, has used balloons for Project Loon last year to provide internet coverage to flood victims in Peru and hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. “We don’t believe those are the correct solutions,” de Mos said. “When you dig down into the numbers, there is nowhere near the capacity that we are going to be able to do.” By using aircraft flying at 35,000 feet they cover a smaller geographic area but can handle a lot more online traffic, de Mos said. Also, cost remains a major obstacle to using satellites for internet traffic. “Even though SpaceX has made progress in getting the cost down, it still remains an expensive way to create a network,” de Mos added. For investors, Airborne Wireless issued a press release on June 21 in which Warren sympathized with the frustration of shareholders over declines in the stock’s trading price, but noted that a company can’t control its share price in a free market. He attributed the drop to the offering of convertible preferred stock and related warrants, for gross proceeds of $8 million to the company. “We believe conversions by the investors in our convertible preferred stock have put downward pressure on our stock price, but as we previously explained, the structure of the offering has the potential to generate significant additional proceeds,” Warren said in a statement. The press release concluded that “as a result of the recent capital raise, and because of the company’s confidence in its underlying business plan and the transformative potential of our technology, the company is continuing to operate its business in the ordinary course, and will communicate any new material information to investors in a timely manner.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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