Qualcomm, the San Diego-based firm that made 3G the world standard for wireless data communication on the ground, appears to be poised to revolutionize broadband communication in the skies. Last July, the firm petitioned the FCC for a rulemaking to allow creation of a new network of air-to-ground cell transceiver stations that will provide aircraft passengers with 100-Mbps connection speeds, which is at least 30 times faster than Gogo.
Nestled into the cabin of your business aircraft, picture being able to view your favorite sports teams' games in real time, upload videos taken in flight, exchange graphics-intensive file attachments and conduct air-to-ground or even air-to-air video conferences with virtually no image latency. Also, imagine your connection charges being slashed in half.
“Qualcomm wouldn't have been interested if [the technology] offered incremental improvement. This is a game changer,” says Amhad Jalali, vice president of technology. “Five or six years ago, people would have questioned the need for such connection capacity.”
Not any more. By 2014, PDA and laptop users are expected to consume as much data in a month as they did in all of 2008, Qualcomm officials say. Huge data transfers are not practical using today's Gogo network because of its peak throughput of 3.1 Mbps per antenna sector. Ku-band satellite systems, such as Gulfstream's Broadband Multi-Link, can upload and download large files considerably faster than Gogo. But the size and weight of the Ku-band satcom equipment limits its installation to large-cabin aircraft and the cost of the equipment and monthly subscription rates are hefty as well, thereby further deterring widespread use.
That's why Qualcomm's next generation air-to-ground system has so much market potential. The avionics gear should be about the same size and weight as today's Aircell boxes, plus they should be priced not much higher, Jalali believes. With a speed of 100 Mbps, it should be the fastest Internet connection in the air, even faster than the latest Ka-band satellite systems.
Jalali believes the cost to build a network of 200 to 250 ground stations in the U.S. could be about two to three times the cost of a similar 4G network, but that's still a small fraction of what it costs to launch and operate a Ku-band or Ka-band satellite system. And the system would have an aggregate data throughput of 300 Gbps, which is a quantum improvement in capacity. The speed should result in substantially lower connection charges to end users than even the current Gogo system.
Qualcomm doesn't intend to operate the network since that's not its core competency. Instead, it plans to develop the technologies, chip sets, ground station and avionics radios that would make possible implementation by a third-party U.S. mobile broadband service provider. However, it's premature to guess what companies might be interested in buying the technology.
Many aircraft operators, however, need connectivity outside the continental U.S., well beyond line-of-sight range of Qualcomm's U.S.-based network. To accommodate those users, Jalali believes that the system also could be configured as a hybrid including both an air-to-ground Ku-band transceiver for stateside operations and a Ku-band or Ka-band satcom system to provide near global broadband coverage.