In-flight Connectivity Service Providers Prepare for Transition to 5G

5G is coming to in-flight connectivity at different times in different form factors in different regions. (Deutsche Telekom)

Some of the world’s largest providers of in-flight connectivity (IFC) services are preparing for the aviation industry’s eventual transition from 4G to 5G, which will have unique deployments in different regions of the world.

On the ground, cellular network providers are already transitioning to 5G, a new cellular radio interface introduced by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) whose signals will run over new radio frequencies within one of either three different types of networks used by service providers including low-band (1 GHz and below), mid-band (1 GHz to 6 GHz) and high band (up to millimeter-wave mmWave). How and when 5G will eventually be leveraged for in-flight internet service depends on region, availability of equipment, and the appetite of operators to adopt it.

“In Germany alone, we’re upgrading or installing up to 2,000 new sites ready for 5G every year. We consider 5G as the natural evolution of LTE or LTE advanced,” David Fox, Vice President of in-flight and connectivity services for Deutsche Telekom, told a June 8 Connected Aviation Intelligence panel.

As the company that supports the terrestrial portion of the European Aviation Network (EAN), Fox said that EAN’s existing 4G technology in combination with the satellite element of the network provided by Inmarsat, is already capable of enabling an in-flight broadband experience that closely matches what passengers experience at home. 5G will “complement and enhance” the connected cabin experience for passengers in Europe, however, 5G will not render 4G completely obsolete, according to Fox.

While Deutsche Telekom has not yet made any commitments to adding a 5G element to the EAN, Fox said that in the context of Europe, “it will be some time until that actually happens.”

“We’re hardware-ready for 5G, so many elements are ready [for] when the time comes to be upgraded. And I don’t think that the equipment and its form factor will not look all that much different from what we are currently using, which is already very ultra-lightweight and really easy to install,” Fox said. “So it could even be light enough to say ‘well look, we are adding this as a complementary connectivity’, and that just gives you an additional connectivity [layer] to the aircraft.”

In the U.S. however, Gogo Business Aviation is on track to deliver its 5G network to business jet operators next year. Gogo’s 5G network will become accessible to business aviation operators in North America as a single channel, combining their existing network’s 4 megahertz of licensed spectrum with 60 megahertz of 2.4 unlicensed spectrum.

Jim MacDougall, vice president of product management for Gogo Business Aviation, was also on the panel and said the company plans to have a test 5G network with 10 sites available by the end of the year, followed by a full-scale launch in the U.S. by the second half of 2022. Their 5G network will provide coverage for some areas of Mexican airspace, and Canada as well.

“The network will be truly 5G end to end, the airborne equipment will have a 5G chipset, the ground-based radios at each base station are 5G, and our data center servers are 5G core servers,” MacDougall said. “Each antenna is using beam-forming to provide an improved experience, and by using the licensed and the unlicensed spectrum together, we ensure that customers will get the best possible experience even in congested airspace over heavily populated areas.”

According to MacDougall, the upgrade from Gogo’s existing air to ground network to the 5G version will use their existing AVANCE L5 Wi-Fi system, paired with a new 5G modem, cabling, antennas, and one new line replaceable unit (LRU). MacDougall also acknowledged the opposition many aviation industry advocacy groups held to the planned deployment of Ligado’s 5G network last year, stating that Gogo does not foresee any interference issues arising from their 5G equipment once installed.

Another German company, SkyFive has emerged as the 5G in-flight connectivity enabler in China, after signing a partnership agreement with the Airbus China Innovation Center to develop a 5G ATG network there late last year. Ammar Khan, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of SkyFive AG, said the company’s focus will not be limited to the Chinese aviation market though.

“It is only focused in China for two reasons, firstly they have chosen to skip 4G completely from a connectivity perspective for the aircraft, they have already allocated spectrum for that purpose and therefore there’s a huge drive in China to make a solution happen which is why we partnered with Airbus to develop a local solution in China,” Khan said.

In May, SkyFive created an independent sister company, SkyFive In-flight Connectivity (Beijing) to support their deployment of a new network in China. Shortly after that announcement the company also received a Series A funding round of investment from Safran Corporate Ventures.

Meanwhile, satellite IFC service providers will remain relevant as 5G comes into the commercial aviation sector. Aditya Chatterjee, senior Vice President of aero segment market solutions for SES, said he believes there will be opportunities to form partnerships with telecommunications companies as 5G becomes more widespread and eventually makes its way into aircraft.

“You cannot run a passenger experience to a very optimum level based on one technology,” Chatterjee said. “Part of our development not only has to do with the next generation satellites but to make sure that the architectures of any network we create is compatible with the ground architecture.”

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox