Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), Gogo, Inmarsat and others continue to push the FCC to auction 500 MHz in the 14 GHz band for air-to-ground (ATG) wireless services for airline passengers, despite their newfound interest in satellite-based technologies. Specifically, the companies are arguing that in-flight broadband services do not pose a danger to airline passengers and personnel, and that a new ATG system would fortify existing terrestrial- and satellite-based systems for in-flight Internet access.
"The FCC's establishment of another in-flight service allocation would not introduce any new risks to national security or air safety," Gogo wrote in a recent filing with the FCC on the proposed spectrum auction. "Moreover, greater in-flight communications capabilities would enhance flight safety for passengers and crew members and, in the future, could enable additional aviation benefits, such as the provision of a real-time 'black box.'"
"Inmarsat noted that passengers are increasingly interested in in-flight broadband," the company wrote in its own filing. "The 14 GHz proceeding proposes a complementary air-to-ground, in-cabin broadband service across the United States. This proposed service would be an expansion of existing in-flight services that have operated in a manner that manages risks to national security and air safety."
Those comments are in response to the position of the Safety and Security in the Air Coalition, which has argued against the 14 GHz auction because in-flight communications for airline passengers "greatly enhance communications capabilities for terrorists and increase cyberwarfare vulnerabilities, leading to unacceptable risks of successful attacks on the United States aviation system with significant and foreseeable adverse human and economic consequences."
To be clear, most airlines already offer passengers the ability to connect to the Internet for around $10.
Qualcomm too remains in support of a 14 GHz auction, although the company hasn't issued a filing on the topic in months and has recently directed investments into satellite startup OneWeb. Qualcomm was the company that in 2011 initially kicked off the topic by proposing that the FCC auction two 250 MHz nationwide licenses in the 14 GHz to 14.5 GHz band for a satellite/terrestrial network that Qualcomm said would provide airline passengers with data speeds up to 300 Gbps (real-world speeds enjoyed by each user on the plane would probably be much slower though). Qualcomm's proposal, dubbed the Next-Gen AG system, includes around 150 earthbound towers scattered around the country powering a network using a Time Division Duplex communications mode with an OFDMA-based air interface.
"We have successfully completed our initial technical development work" on the Next-Gen AG system in the 14 GHz band, said Dean Brenner, Qualcomm's senior vice president of government affairs, in response to FierceWirelessTech questions on the topic. "Further technical work to commercialize our technology is premature until the FCC issues its ruling."
The FCC opened up a proposed rulemaking on the spectrum auction in 2013, noting at the time the spectrum would be shared with incumbent users, including fixed satellite services and certain U.S. government agencies. However, the FCC has remained silent on the topic since.
"The FCC held another round of hearings regarding the safety and security issues and I think that all went very positively and we're back into the waiting game but would expect that sometime soon we'd get a Report and Order," said Michael Small, Gogo's chief executive, in response to a question about the possible auction. Small made his comments during the company's most recent earnings call with investors in May, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. "We continue to remain very interested in that it's rare in the wireless business that you see 500 MHz coming your way and you get very excited when those moments come. So we're looking forward to that, but have no special insight into when the Report and Order will actually appear."
While Qualcomm said it remains in support of an FCC auction in the 14 GHz band, the company is also moving forward in other areas. "In addition to terrestrial-based air-ground technology that is the subject of the FCC proceeding for the U.S., we are also developing innovative, satellite-based technology for this and many other applications on a global basis in conjunction with OneWeb, as was announced," Qualcomm's Brenner said.
Qualcomm was among a group of companies that just last month invested $500 million into OneWeb's plan to deploy hundreds of low-orbit satellites operating in the 12-18 GHz Ku spectrum band. OneWeb hopes to use the satellites to offer high-speed Internet services to a wide range of customers.
Gogo, which sells in-flight Internet services to a wide range of airlines, also is moving toward satellite-based services. The company got its start a decade ago offering in-flight Internet via an ATG system in the 800 MHz band using Qualcomm's EV-DO technology. But now Gogo is working to roll out in-flight services using spot-beam satellites operated by Intelsat and SES in the Ku band. Gogo has said the satellite-based services will provide airline passengers with Internet speeds up to 70 Mbps, far faster than the 1-3 Mbps services it currently provides via its aging ATG system.
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