More Wi-Fi in the sky: FCC proposes to free up airwaves for faster in-flight broadband

Airplane Sunset

Think the current options for in-flight Wi-Fi suck? The Federal Communications Commission hears you.

The FCC on Thursday proposed to auction off more airwaves for commercial ground-to-plane broadband communications. We’re not just talking about a handful of frequencies here: The FCC is eyeballing a 500 MHz block of spectrum, which could boost the connection speeds available to aircraft by a factor of 100,000.

As my colleague Stacey Higginbotham explained in a recent post, current in-flight broadband is so pricey and low-bandwidth because airlines rely on expensive satellite or ground-to-air transmissions systems to link aircraft to the internet. The dominant airline provider GoGo uses what is in essence a 3G CDMA network pointed at the sky. That means a single 3Mbps EV-DO connection must be spread among all of the internet users in an aircraft. Your fancy new laptop may support gigabit Wi-Fi, but the bottleneck in the ground-based backhaul link can slow you down to dial-up speeds.

Wi-Fi logoThe FCC’s plans, however, key in on a proposal Qualcomm made last year to clear a massive swathe of spectrum in the 14 GHz frequencies over which a kind of super-LTE network could be built. That network would only sport about 150 towers but each of those nodes would blast a high-powered signal into the northern horizon. Airplanes would fly between these huge crescent-shaped cells just as our cellphones move from tower to tower on the ground. But each of these aerial cells would have a whopping 300 Gbps of capacity, which would be shared among all of the planes occupying the surrounding airspace.

That’s a lot of bandwidth, but it’s conceivable that the airlines and their passengers could find a use for it. Today’s in-flight Wi-Fi is priced for the business traveler with an expense account and the inability to go four hours without email access. But these days everyone in the cabin from first-class to steerage is carrying multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices. And they don’t just want to check email — they they want to stream video and play networked games. Airlines could also use that bandwidth to offer on-demand entertainment and live programming from the cloud, not just from their on-board hard-drives.

As for costs, a more efficient network could allow airlines to drop rates — or maybe even eliminate in-flight broadband fees entirely — to make high-bandwidth connections available to all customers. GoGo’s current network uses 160 towers, making it the same the size as Qualcomm’s proposed system. The infrastructure investment would be about the same, but by using the latest 4G network technologies and hell of a lot more spectrum, we could shove a lot more bandwidth into that infrastructure.

The 14 GHz band is currently used by fixed satellite providers as an uplink path to their birds in orbit. The FCC proposal would require that the any new in-flight network share those frequencies with its current tenants. In its notice of proposed rulemaking, the Commission said it is seeking industry comment to ensure there will be no interference between those two uses.

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