Qualcomm, SpaceX reach agreement that puts super-fast broadband on planes one step closer

Thanks to an agreement that Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and SpaceX reached, the industry may be one step closer to realizing the vision of providing every passenger on planes with simultaneous access to streaming video, including live news.

That was one of the goals of engineers at Qualcomm when they set out to provide the technology that would allow for fast broadband on planes. In a proceeding before the FCC, Qualcomm, Gogo Wireless, Inmarsat and others are pushing for the FCC to auction 500 MHz in the 14 GHz band for air-to-ground (ATG) wireless services for airline passengers. The companies argue 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.

However, SpaceX, the venture headed by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, raised concerns last summer. SpaceX plans to operate a nongeostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) fixed satellite service (FSS) system that will use, among other frequencies, the 14.0-14.5 GHz band that has been proposed for new air-ground service. SpaceX was concerned about the potential for the new air-ground service to interfere with SpaceX's 14.0-14.5 GHz band operations.

Qualcomm had previously stated that the proposed air-ground system would account for less than 1 percent of the rise over thermal (RoT) for NGSO FSS systems. When SpaceX substituted its beamwidth, gain and G/T figures for the figures that had been assumed by Qualcomm, it found that the air-ground system would in fact account for more than 6 percent of the RoT for SpaceX's NGSO FSS system.

After a series of discussions, the two companies reached the conclusion that it is possible to field an air-ground mobile broadband (AGMD) system that sufficiently protects SpaceX's NGSO system. "SpaceX and Qualcomm agree that, given that, at present, the AGMB service will be the only non-primary use of the band, the AGMB operator shall control RoT to NGSO satellite systems to ensure that aggregate interference from the AGMB service accounts for no more than 1 percent RoT of the FSS link budget set out in ITU Recommendation S.1432," the companies said in a joint filing to the FCC.

"We're delighted" that they were able to reach a proposal that is satisfactory to SpaceX, which may or may not end up being a rival to the OneWeb satellite program that Qualcomm is supporting along with Richard Branson's Virgin Group, according to Dean Brenner, senior vice president, government affairs, at Qualcomm. "We don't know that SpaceX and OneWeb are actually going to compete," he told FierceWirelessTech. They might have completely different business models and offer different services.

"We're just looking at the technologies and systems that are on the drawing board," Brenner added. "It does show that people of good faith, when working together on technical issues, even from different companies that have different business objectives, can work together and reach a consensus."

Qualcomm is optimistic that an auction will be held in a timely fashion and that if everything were to go according to plan and smooth sailing, it could see its technology deployed on planes within two or three years. It's unknown who ultimately will deploy it, but it's possible mobile operators could get involved. Last year, T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and Gogo started offering free in-flight texting and voicemail to T-Mobile customers on Gogo-equipped U.S. aircraft.

While various offerings advertise different levels of service on planes -- JetBlue uses satellite service provided by ViaSat to offer streaming-friendly service to its passengers -- Gogo is primarily designed for web browsing, email and corporate VPN access. Because of capacity limitations, Gogo doesn't allow for video downloads, in-flight file transfers or streaming media, among other things. That is going to change with future iterations of its technology, but the baseline, when Qualcomm engineered its next-gen technology, was to allow all the passengers on the plane to stream video.

For more:
- see this FCC filing

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Qualcomm, Gogo, others continue to push for FCC's 14 GHz ATG spectrum auction despite moves to satellite services
Gogo: Antenna is important component for in-flight communications
Gogo CEO: Texting is the new talk on planes
Qualcomm plan for 500 MHz of in-flight broadband spectrum wins initial FCC nod