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Up, Up, And Away With Meru Networks And Aircell

Putting network connectivity in the hands of airline passengers is not a new idea. Back in 2001, I spent considerable time talking with Boeing's Connexion team about their new on-board client access initiative. With a BS in Aeronautics and a career in IT, I couldn't get enough of the story about networks that streak across the sky. Unfortunately, Boeing ultimately couldn't make a profitable go of it, using satellite modems and then-current wireless technology. Connexion quietly closed up shop in 2006 for lack of demand versus high cost of equipment and aircraft retrofit. But times and technology change fast, and there are new players in the airborne WiFi game. A few weeks ago, Meru Networks announced their partnership with Aircell, and this generation of in-flight client access has a much better chance of making good.

I recently caught up with Ram Appalaruju, Meru's VP of Marketing, and Joe Epstein, Director of Technology for Meru. The Meru "virtual cell" story is always fascinating to hear, and I hadn't refreshed my knowledge of the networking company in a while. While Appalaruju and Epstein got me back up to speed on all things Meru, the mention of the new partnership with Aircell hooked me hard. Having watched the rise and fall of Connexion, I couldn't help but wonder what was different with Meru/Aircell that would make a venture of this magnitude worth trying, given the failure of its predecessor.

From a feature perspective, Meru's Virtual Cell and Virtual Port functions should both play well in the confines of an aircraft densely populated with strangers, where clients have a range of wireless device types. Given the superior multi-path signal handling capabilities of 802.11n, and Meru's stated ability to reduce the number of required access points needed to effectively cover a given space, the in-cabin wireless environment enabled by Meru is a leap ahead of Connexion's legacy 802.11b stuff. Meru is currently on dozens of aircraft, with a trajectory measured in the hundreds by year's end.

Aircell provides the backhaul piece of the partnership. Unlike Connexion's reliance on satellite links, Aircell's network is fed from almost a hundred cellular towers that dot the United States (which means no international flight WiFi). Given clear line of sight and zero obstructions between towers and airborne aircraft, extending mobile telecommunications networks skyward makes sense. With no satellite dependency, thousands of "signal travel miles" and hundreds of milliseconds worth of delay are avoided, significantly reducing latency.

Aircell also has another edge over Connexion: on an aircraft, weight is crucial. Aircell's equipment weighs a fraction of Connexion's old gear, which makes it a much better fit both physically and from the perspective of fleet-management buy-in. Aircell has also become a staple on many private business airlines and is featured on thousands of flights daily in the US (using both Meru-equipped aircraft and other partners.)

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