In-flight connectivity could be faster and accessible to more commercial and business aircraft in a few years, under a proposal from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a terrestrial-based air-to-ground mobile broadband service for aircraft flying in the National Airspace System (NAS).
The proposal would establish an air-to-ground Internet service first proposed to the commission by Qualcomm in 2011, operating in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band,
on a secondary, non-interference basis with Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) Earth-to-space communications.
The agency is looking to improve in-flight connectivity speeds, and meet rising demand for the service. Industry experts are predicting that the number of connected aircraft will grow from 3,000 in 2012 to about 15,000 by 2021. If approved, the air to ground network would be established only for the contiguous United States, excluding Hawaii and Alaska, according to agency officials.
Air-to-ground systems deliver in-flight connectivity via a ground-based network that communicates with an antenna attached to the aircraft, connecting it to on-board Wi-Fi service. Currently, air-to-ground licensees operate in the 800 MHz band with 4 MHz, according to FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski, FCC's new proposal would greatly increase the spectrum available to service providers.
"Today’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would free up, for secondary use, 500 megahertz of spectrum, for a new Air-Ground Mobile Broadband service. So we would be going for 4 megahertz of spectrum for air-to-ground to 504 megahertz," said Genachowski. "This service would help meet consumer demand by offering airline passengers access to better in-flight broadband and will increase competitive pressure on current systems to improve the quality of their in-flight services. Specifically, the proposal could provide broadband capacity of up to 300 gigabits per second on a combined basis."
The new system has the ability to not only increase in-flight connectivity speeds, but also to lower the cost of the service, as air to ground service is less expensive to provide than satellite-based connectivity, which is the other model of in-flight connectivity currently available on aircraft.
The Satellite Industry Association (SIA) is opposing the agency's new proposal, saying the proposed air-to-ground service would cause interference with satellite services.
"SIA has filed with the Commission detailed technical analyses that demonstrate that the proposed air-ground service would cause interference into the satellite services that are primary in that band and are relied upon by media, enterprise, public safety and U.S. military customers for essential services," SIA said in a statement.
FCC's proposal requires another vote before final approval to move forward with the plan, and will likely take several years to fully implement if approved.