Qualcomm plan for 500 MHz of in-flight broadband spectrum wins initial FCC nod

The FCC unanimously opened for public comment a proposed rulemaking that could result in the auction of 500 MHz of spectrum for a high-speed air-to-ground (ATG) broadband service championed by Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). However, the spectrum would be shared with incumbent users, including fixed satellite services and certain U.S. government agencies.

The FCC said the proposed terrestrial-based ATG-based in-flight broadband service would use spectrum in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band to provide multi-gigabit broadband connectivity for passengers on aircraft flying within the contiguous United States.

The band is allocated on a primary basis for fixed satellite service (FSS) as an uplink band for geostationary orbit (GSO) FSS operations. The air-ground mobile broadband service would operate on a secondary basis to GSO satellite systems and future non-geostationary orbit satellite systems, and on a co-secondary basis with NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, said the commission. The ATG service also would be required to coordinate with the existing Radio Astronomy Service.

Qualcomm, which filed its petition for rulemaking on July 7, 2011, contends the 14 GHz band can be shared successfully without causing interference. The company suggested the commission auction 250 MHz licenses at 14.00-14.25 GHz and 14.25-14.50 GHz to enable two separate ATG systems.

"Qualcomm designed the air-to-ground system that many airline passengers use today on Gogo's network, and this proposal takes the technology to the next level, allowing passengers to use their smartphones, tablets and other mobile broadband devices in the air with very high speed, high capacity mobile broadband connectivity, just as they do on the ground," said Dean Brenner, senior vice president of government affairs for Qualcomm.

There are two types of current in-flight broadband service: satellite-based and air-to-ground. The former is operated by multiple licensees and shares 1 GHz of spectrum among the licensees and with other FSS operators. Gogo, the current ATG licensee, operates with 4 MHz in the 800 MHz band.

By adding 500 MHz to the existing 4 MHz for ATG broadband use, "the proposal could provide broadband capacity of up to 300 gigabits per second on a combined basis," said Julius Genachowski, presiding over his final FCC meeting as chairman.

"This will enable business and leisure travelers aboard aircraft in the United States to be more productive and have more choices in entertainment, communications and social media, and it could lower prices," he added.

The plan, however, has numerous opponents, one of which is the Satellite Industry Association, which represents numerous satellite interests including Boeing, DirecTV, EchoStar, Hughes Network Systems, Inmarsat, Iridium Communications, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and ViaSat. The group contends the spectrum-sharing plan could cause interference and disrupt multiple multi-billion-dollar businesses.

For more:
- see this FCC notice
- see this Genachowski statement
- see this San Diego Union-Tribune article
- see this The Hill article
- see this Computerworld article

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