Plane-to-Plane Network Could Blanket Skies With Wi-Fi

Aircraft-based networks could deliver broadband data coverage to remote areas — and a new way to track a plane that goes missing.

A California firm is hoping to use airplanes as "mini-satellites" to create a flying network that would blanket remote islands, rural areas and ships at sea with wireless broadband coverage. The network might also allow passengers to stream movies in-flight (or make pesky cell phone calls), while simultaneously creating a means for rescuers to find aircraft if they have trouble or go missing.

"The plane serves as a repeater to other aircraft and forms a global web," said Jason de Mos, vice president for business development at Airborne Wireless Network, a small tech firm in Simi Valley, Calif. "It's different than anything else and there is no single point of failure."

Many communications and technology firms have been trying to figure out ways to cover remote areas with wireless technology that don't have cell towers and earth-bound repeaters. Executives at Google are testing unmanned drones in the New Mexico desert to deliver high-bandwidth 5G wireless signals as part of project SkyBender.

Facebook's goal of covering Africa with a broadband signal went up in smoke when a SpaceX rocket carrying a European satellite caught fire a few days before launch at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 1.

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But de Vos compares the AWN system to a budget-conscious "Walmart Blue-Light Special" of global wireless systems. For one, the equipment is a fraction of the cost of a $200 million satellite, he said.

"We are just adding some equipment to the existing infrastructure and taking advantage of it," de Vos said. "We can do what these other companies can do at a fraction of the cost."

Airplanes land every few hours, making maintenance and upgrades much easier than on a satellite which stays in orbit for 10 to 20 years, he added. Another advantage is that airplanes fly between 20,000 and 40,000 feet in altitude, while satellites are increasingly faced with the issue of dodging "space junk" or pieces of old spacecraft.

The company purchased an existing patent for the wireless radio technology in August, and has been moving forward since then, de Vos said.

"We would offer very high, office-quality download speeds for live streaming and voice calls," de Vos said.

Despite the promised advantages, one expert said the firm has a lot of obstacles to overcome before it can compete with big social media firms, or other companies that are ramping up in-flight entertainment and internet services through satellite connections.

"I'm skeptical that airborne coverage is continuous and reliable enough in markets that matter to make it reliable," said R. John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology."It's a classic case of how do you get to critical mass?" he said. "If only one airplane's using it, it's not going to do very much."

De Mos said that AWN will ramp up its signal during the night when flights are less frequent, and when demand for wireless coverage is also less.

In January, AWN will equip and test the system on two Boeing 757-200 aircraft that are currently parked in the Arizona desert, along with a mobile ground-based receiver. The Federal Aviation Administration gave permission for the test. The next phase would be installing the system on a 20-plane network. The firm announced a $1.2 million private placement investment in November.

WATCH: How WiFi Works on Planes