Skyfive aims high after flying clear of Nokia

Vertical lift-off? Nokia has spun out cellular technology aimed at the aviation market.

Three ex-Nokia executives have carried out an MBO to co-found Skyfive, a new business through which they hope to further commercialise the technology, creating an end-to-end service for airline on-board connectivity.

Ground to air mobile cellular technology works by pointing base station antennas up to the sky, creating large cell sites (150km radius in the EAN’s case) at high altitudes. On board terminals receive the signals and distribute them as cellular connectivity within the plane cabins. There is also a satellite connection that provides redundancy and connection when the plane is outside of the ground to air coverage. In Europe, the EAN uses dedicated S-Band spectrum owned by Inmarsat for both the ground to air and satellite element. ( In Europe, the allocated S-band spectrum is a 1.98 to 2.01 GHz for Earth to space communications, and from 2.17 to 2.2 GHz for space to Earth communications. )

How Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat described EAN’s technology

EAN is operated by Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat, and has been signing up airlines, with its flagship customer being British Airways. Vueling too is signed up to test the service.

The ground base station and on-plane terminal (receiver-modem) technology is provided by Nokia. Now Skyfive wants to replicate that model in other geographies, most likely in the Middle East, India and China. 

Skyfive is being led by Thorsten Robrecht, an 18 year Nokia veteran (you can read previous interviews and comment from Robrecht here), Dr. Michael Ohm, Chief Technology Officer and Dirk Lindemeier, Chief Commercial Officer.

Why the MBO?

Most recently Robrecht had been responsible for running Nokia’s advanced network solutions business, looking for new areas of expansion.  The ground to air business was part of that effort, but Robrecht said that it was decided that it would do better as a business outside of “big Nokia”.

Nokia talks a lot about its enterprise and verticals business aspirations, private networks and so on. If this is such a good business opportunity, why did Nokia want to let it go?

“Nokia has always promoted it, but the key aspect here is that aviation is a very specialised sector. Aviation has a huge partner ecosystem and that makes it more complicated than traditional activities, even compared to industrial activities. We were surprised at first at the complexity of getting the equipment certified for the different aircraft, and so on.

 “So we discussed it back and forth, presented different options and in the end we said it would be better in the hands of someone specialising in this. 

“And Nokia is continuing as a strong strong partner for Skyfive – we have strong co-operation agreements in place as to how we run this business in the future.”

The service offering

“What we are doing as SkyFive is a full end-to-end solution of this activity. The ground network itself is important and part of the MBO deal is that Nokia will be helping with their full technology, as per EAN. But this alone does not do the trick. It requires a receiver on the aircraft itself, like a small base station in the aircraft connected to the ground, with a lot of special software and algorithms to deal with connecting to the ground network as the aircraft moves very fast through the airspace.

“Then Skyfive is selling on-board, professional services, network planning installation and so on to create a one stop shop for airlines and telecoms.” The next step would be to leverage the network, lower down in altitude, to be used for connected drone flights, he added.

Robrecht said that a wholesale model would probably work best in most geographies, avoiding spectrum auctions but giving telecoms operators the opportunity to expand into a new market, not just for consumer connectivity but for IoT use cases for connected aircraft themselves.

A market segment ready for take-off

“In my opinion it is a market segment that is just about to start, with Europe as a front-runner. We are seeing the market starting up in the Middle East, with STC trials in Saudi Arabia and we are working to get that commercial. In China there is a special regulation from the government to create a network all over China, and we have seen something similar on a governmental level in India where digitising the air industry is a big activity.”

With this momentum will come competitors. In the USA just this week, GoGo announced it would be working with cellular provider Airspan and Cisco for a similar offering for 5G in the country (an LTE rollout has stalled due to GoGo’s use of ZTE as a vendor).

“We will definitely see more competitors and partners. We are very lucky that we are a bit ahead, having done the hard yards over the past eight or nine years already, bringing a live commercial service end-to-end,” Robrecht said

In-flight connectivity a basic requirement

Airlines are increasingly providing, and charging for, in-flight WiFi backhauled over satellite. Robrecht said that ground to air cellular is around 100 times lower in cost per bit terms. Plus it’s easier to scale and it performs better,with lower latency and broader bandwidth. 

“I personally am of the opinion that we are where we were ten years ago in terms of paying for hotel WiFi. Now you expect to see that free of charge. I think it [cellular connectivity] will become at the end a basic competitive requirement for airlines.”