The AIrborne Wireless Network is a proposed system that would use commercial aircraft as nodes in a worldwide meshed network, beaming data between each other, ships and ground stations.
Just this week, the Canadian government declared that access to high-speed internet is a basic necessity and pledged CAD$750 million towards rolling it out to rural areas across the country. But there's a whole world of unconnected people out there, and other companies are using satellites, drones, or even balloons to beam internet to remote areas. Now Airborne Wireless Network (AWN) plans to make use of the several thousand commercial aircraft that are in the sky at any given moment to create a meshed carrier network.
AWN's vision would see existing planes fitted with small microwave relay station devices, allowing them to daisy-chain broadband signals to other nearby aircraft, ships and ground stations, providing internet access not only to passengers in-flight, but those on the ground within a line-of-sight range of the flight path. Unfortunately, that does imply that some areas would be extremely well-covered while others would not.
Using planes as "mini-satellites" to create the network has several advantages over regular satellites, according to AWN. Since the nodes are all talking to several other nodes simultaneously, if a specific link goes down, the signal will find a way around the interruption, jumping to other connections as necessary. That allows for a more stable service and faster speeds, with AWN claiming it performs at close to "100 percent real-time." There's no "store and forward" system at play here, like thenetwork of Toyota LandCruisers proposed to bring emergency communications to the Australian Outback.
Another advantage is that AWN's Network is not only safe from damage by space junk, but it reduces the amount of future junk launched into orbit. And because the nodes are constantly landing and taking off, future upgrades can be done during routine maintenance, unlike satellites which are more of a one-and-done deal.
The idea has been floating around since 1998, and the inventor was actually awarded a patent for it back in 2001 – unfortunately, just days before 9/11. AWN acquired the patent earlier this year.
The company says its primary target customer-base will be worldwide data and communications service providers. In August it signed a memorandum of understanding with Kansas City-based Jet Midwest Group to provide up to three Boeing 757-223 aircraft for "proof of network concept" and certification testing, and in October it submitted its application with the FAA for initial certification of the system, but as yet there are no details regarding expected costs or a roll-out timeframe.
It's certainly an ambitious plan. Time will tell if it can get off the ground.