Faster Internet for Airplanes

British_Aerospace_BAC-111-537GF_One-Eleven,_Cyprus_Airways_AN0268935It’s somewhat ironic, but in the not too distant future most people are going to be able to get faster Internet access when flying on an airplane than they can get at home. The ITU Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R), a division of the International Telecommunications Union has released a specification for fast Internet access that they call Earth Stations on Mobile Platforms. This new specification promises to bring Internet access to airplanes, ships, trains and other moving platforms which will be 10 to 20 times faster than what is available today.

This will be accomplished using satellites that transmit data paths at the very high spectrum range between 17.3 and 30.0 GHz. This band is so high that it will not interfere with anything terrestrial today, and is proposed for now to be limited to this mobile use. An airplane will connect to the satellite using this spectrum and then retransmit throughout the airplane using WiFi.

This spectrum uses extremely short radio waves and it is subject to many kinds of interference. This means it will make a better connection to an airplane that is flying in rarified air than it will to something on the surface of the earth. But even so the technology is expected to still be able to deliver somewhat decent bandwidth to ships and trains.

There is not enough capacity on a satellite to use the same frequency to deliver bandwidth to multiple customers on the earth surface, which is why it is being proposed for only moving targets. With this frequency the satellite needs to point multiple small antennas at one receiver in order to create a good link, making it impractical for a satellite to connect to too many different receivers simultaneously.

This use has already been approved by Ofcom, the British version of the FCC and there are expectations that the US and the rest of Europe will also approve this application.

There is a lot of demand for bandwidth from airlines, cruise ships and passenger trains. Passengers want to stay connected to the Internet while traveling, particularly on long transoceanic flights or on cruise ships. This service will be able to deliver speeds in the range of 100 Mbps download for the whole airplane, which is fast enough for a number of customers to watch streaming video simultaneously.

There are already some airlines that are handing tablets to their customers as an alternative to in-plane TV screens. American Airlines is now handing out tablets in first class on transcontinental or long international flights. These tablets can browse a library of content stored on board the plane. Hawaiian Airlines is doing it one better and is handing a tablet to all customers on flights to and from the mainland. But with access to this new technology the airlines wouldn’t have to limit people to only on-board programming and could also give them email and web access.

Cruise ships are particularly interested in the technology because they have found that there are many people today who won’t take a cruise if that means being cut off from Internet access. For many people, being connected is becoming an essential element of daily life.

I said at the start of the blog that this is somewhat ironic, because there are still many homes in the US that cannot adequately stream video and it just seems somewhat odd that the one place they will be able to experience that is in a jet traveling at 500 miles per hour.

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