Qualcomm proposes 300 Gbps in-flight mobile broadband technology

Mike Dano

Qualcomm has set its sights on the market for mobile broadband on airplanes with a proposal that calls for a nationwide wireless network in the 14 GHz to 14.5 GHz band that could support data connections up to 300 Gbps. However, there are plenty of challenges Qualcomm must overcome for the company's proposition to take flight (pun intended).

Qualcomm is no stranger to the market for in-flight mobile broadband. The company's EV-DO technology forms the terrestrial component of the Gogo (formerly Aircell) in-flight Internet service. But Qualcomm last year realized that Gogo and other in-flight Internet providers might not be able to keep pace with airline passengers' data demands.

Thus, in July 2011, Qualcomm submitted a detailed proposal to the FCC that calls for the agency to 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. The network would connect airplanes to the Internet, and airline companies could offer passengers Wi-Fi access. But Qualcomm noted that other technologies could be used in the band as well.

In its proposal, Qualcomm points out that Gogo--currently installed on 1,100 commercial aircraft from the likes of American Airlines and United Airlines--offers service using just 3 MHz of spectrum. Qualcomm said Gogo "will have difficulty supporting the rapidly increasing demand for mobile broadband connectivity on-board aircraft as smartphones, tablets, and other mobile broadband devices continue to proliferate." The FCC has said it intends to free up more spectrum for mobile broadband. And Gogo has acknowledged its strained network; the company this year is working to quadruple the capacity of its current system by adding directional antennas, dual-modems and EV-DO Rev. B technologies to its roughly 100 ground-based towers.

"For this reason, Qualcomm has designed a Next-Gen AG system that can support a very high level of demand and offer airline travelers an in-flight broadband experience equivalent to what is available in their homes, offices, parks, cars, buses, and trains," Qualcomm wrote in its proposal.

Already Qualcomm's proposal has won the support of American Airlines, Virgin American and Delta Airlines, according to filings the companies made with the FCC. Interestingly, even Gogo supports Qualcomm's proposal, though Gogo makes one important caveat: Gogo said the FCC should ensure that one company cannot win both 250 MHz licenses. Qualcomm, on the other hand, argues that the FCC should allow one company to win both licenses so that company could "deploy a single, more robust system in 500 MHz of spectrum if supported by business considerations."

A number of companies and entities are staunchly against Qualcomm's proposal, however. At the forefront of the opposition movement is Row 44, a rival to Gogo that powers the in-flight Internet services of Southwest Airlines (the company lost Alaska Airlines to Gogo in 2010). Row 44 argues that Qualcomm "fails to explain why a new terrestrial mobile service allocation ... is necessary to accommodate the specific types of uses it contemplates for service to airline passengers" and that Qualcomm's proposal could cause interference to adjacent bands. Boeing, the Satellite Industry Association, Panasonic Avionics Corporation and others also voiced concerns that Qualcomm's proposal could cause troubles to those already operating in the spectral vicinity, or those with licenses to do so.

The process seems to be moving forward nonetheless. The FCC on Jan. 30 asked Qualcomm several technical questions about its proposal, which Qualcomm promptly responded to the very next day with detailed answers.

To be clear though, there's no reason to expect the FCC to move quickly on Qualcomm's plan. The agency is mired in a wide range of other issues, including freeing spectrum from TV broadcasters for mobile broadband. Further, the FCC generally requires years of study and discussion before making any major decision. (And the FCC is probably highly sensitive to interference concerns, considering the mess LightSquared is in.)

There are a number of factors driving Qualcomm's Next-Gen AG system proposal. First, the company likely would be able to sell equipment and technology to whichever company or companies win the licenses for the service (if the FCC does end up acting on Qualcomm's proposal). Indeed, Qualcomm itself might bid on the licenses; the company bid on the D Block license during the FCC's 700 MHz spectrum auction in 2008, but didn't end up winning any licenses.

But clouding Qualcomm's proposal is the underpinnings of its basic argument: that Americans need more bandwidth while they fly. Qualcomm notes that "broadband usage on-board aircraft will continue to grow as portable device sales continue to skyrocket and consumers increasingly demand in-flight mobile broadband connectivity." However, Boeing Connexion sunk $1 billion into the market for in-flight Internet and in 2006 had to shut down the service due to lackluster user interest. In 2009, Portfolio reported that airline passengers still didn't want to pay for in-flight Internet service, even if it only cost $1.

Today things are a little different. Wi-Fi capable smartphones are popping up like weeds in homes across America, and those smartphone owners might be more willing to pay for connectivity on airplanes in order to maintain the kind of ubiquitous connections they enjoy on the ground. After all, Words With Friends can't update games without a connection, and Scrabble is a great way to pass the time on a cross-country flight. But I don't' expect any real movement on Qualcomm's proposal this year. Or next year. +Mike Dano