In-Flight and On-Line: FCC Proposes Domestic Air-to-Ground System for Airborne Wi-Fi

Antennas would use directional pointing rules to avoid interfering with satellites.

The FCC is looking to expand the use of wireless services, particularly in-flight Wi-Fi, on aircraft traveling over the contiguous United States.  In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the FCC has proposed the establishment of a new air-ground mobile broadband service in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band.

The proposal was first advanced by Qualcomm, which hopes to augment the recently authorized (just last December) satellite-based connections to aircraft with a nationwide network of air-to-ground stations that would allow plane passengers to connect more easily and cheaply to the Internet. Unlike satellite connections (which work anywhere), the new system would work only while the plane is in U.S. airspace. The FCC sees – and wants to accommodate – the growing demand for in-flight Internet access, while increasing competition, improving service, and lowering prices.

The proposed service poses potentially difficult technical issues.

It would use the 14.0-14.5 GHz band, but only as an additional secondary use. The current primary allocation is to the Fixed Satellite Service, available for in-flight Wi-Fi and a host of other uses. The FCC thinks it can achieve compatibility through “spatial diversity” rules, which would limit the directions in which antennas can point. Since the 14.0-14.5 GHz band is used for sending transmissions from the Earth towards satellites orbiting over the equator, U.S. earth stations all point south, more or less. Antennas in the proposed system would point north (in the case of ground stations) or downwards (in the case of the antennas on the aircraft), which should reduce their interference with satellite users.

Those with long memories may find the north/south scheme familiar. In the 1990s, a company called NorthPoint proposed to share the 12.2-12.7 GHz broadcast satellite band by transmitting fixed terrestrial signals in a southward direction. Since all home dishes in North America aim toward the south, NorthPoint reasoned, a southward-directed beam would hit the backs of the dishes and not cause interference. After extensive technical and political dispute, including debates in Congress, the FCC auctioned off the band for this use in 2004.

It may be as contentious to devise an air-ground system a system that avoids interfering with the satellite uplinks while connecting thousands of planes that move around the country at hundreds of miles per hour.

Also needing protection will be radio astronomy at 14.47-14.5 GHz. The FCC proposes requiring any prospective licensee in the air-ground broadband service to coordinate with the radio astronomers at the National Science Foundation to minimize interference.

The NPRM acknowledges, but doesn’t resolve, another petition proposing fixed service use of 14.0-14.5 GHz for certain “critical infrastructure” entities.  Five years ago, the Utilities Telecom Council filed a petition for rulemaking proposing such service. According to the NPRM, that proposal will be decided separately, which suggests that its already difficult prospects may be dimmed further by the air-ground proposal.

If and when the new air-ground broadband service is approved and implemented, the connection you get in flight may not be the connection you’ve come to expect at home or at work. It’s not known what kind of speeds these connections would afford. (The NPRM, quoting Qualcomm, refers generally to “multi-gigabit” speeds, and there is mention of theoretical speeds up to 300 gigabits per second – although, as Commissioner Pai cautions, such claims will need to be verified.) It’s also not known how consistent the connections would be. Besides the problem of hand-offs from one ground station to another, the available bandwidth will be shared by the dozens (or more) of connected devices on any given plane. It’s unlikely that anyone will do much HD video conferencing from 35,000 feet. But updating your Facebook status or reading CommLawBlog while airborne should become easier and cheaper than it is today, and who could complain about that?

Still, this news may darken the hearts of some travelers.

Time in the clouds has become one of the last opportunities to be truly un-plugged. More than a few travelers may grumble about being expected to read and answer emails while flying. Not to mention the more unsavory uses for the Internet, which may require content filtering or vigilant monitoring by the flight crew. And the threat of a VoIP-connected telephone user in the next seat. While these are not new problems, the decline in cost and increase in availability of Internet access while flying could prove to be both a blessing and a curse.

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