AT&T already handles a third of the mobile connections in the U.S. on the ground. Now it wants to connect phones, tablets and laptops above the clouds as well.
AT&T announced plans on Monday to launch an air-to-ground LTE network that would provide internet connectivity to both commercial and private fliers. The network could be live as late 2015, the company said.
Ma Bell didn’t go into many details about the technology it would use, except to say it would be based on same LTE standard it uses for its terrestrial 4G service today. Such a network though could substantially boost capacity available to a commercial flight, however, given LTE is much faster than the 3G CDMA-based technology used by U.S. inflight internet leader Gogo today (though Gogo, too, is planning a major upgrade).
Presumably, this new network would look very different from AT&T’s current LTE systems. Instead of tens of thousands of towers packed together in metro areas, it would build a widely spaced grid of a few hundred high-powered transmitters pointed at the heavens. AT&T doesn’t own of any the 800 MHz air-to-ground licenses in the U.S. (they’re all owned by Gogo), but it does own plenty of spectrum in its portfolio that it currently isn’t using for cellular services. Those airwaves might do the trick if it got regulatory permission to use them for inflight connectivity.
AT&T may also be eyeballing an FCC plan to auction off a massive 500 MHz chunk of airwaves in the 14 GHz band that could be used to beam incredibly fat broadband pipes to airplanes, though it’s unlikely those licenses would be available, or the underlying network technology ready, to meet AT&T’s planned 2015 launch date.