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.

Potential Market for Air-to-Ground Connectivity

Industry studies predict that the demand for inflight broadband will increase more than six-fold in the next three years. That estimate might prove conservative based upon Qualcomm's research. In its July 2011 FCC filing, the company stated that by 2015 tablet computers alone will use as much mobile broadband as all devices around the world in 2010. Indeed, consumers bought close to 10 million tablet computers just in fourth quarter 2010; almost 45 million tablets were expected to sell in 2011 and 70 million more in 2012, according to Qualcomm's research. By 2015, more than 80 million such devices are expected to be in use.

And sales of smartphones far outpace those of tablet computers. In 2011, 95 million units were expected to be sold in the U.S. alone. Smartphone users exchanged 89% more data per month in 2011 than they did in 2010, according to Wall Street Journal research cited by Qualcomm. Cisco Systems believes that the volume of mobile data traffic will be 47 times greater in 2014 than it was in 2009, according to the FCC's National Broadband Plan.

“Consumers are embracing at unprecedented rates the remarkable capabilities of smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other mobile broadband-enabled devices,” writes Dean Brenner, Qualcomm's Washington, D.C.-based vice president of government affairs, noting “travelers increasingly need full access [to] the same mobile broadband services and applications that they use on the ground.”

Brenner believes that Gogo's current 3-MHz bandwidth system will increasingly bog down because of the proliferation of mobile devices used by air travelers and that Qualcomm's greater data throughput capacity “will become essential for a majority of U.S. air travelers within the next several years.” And, he says, since broadband-enabled smartphones and tablets are becoming commonplace, “consumers more and more will want to access the same mobile services and applications on-board airplanes.”

Social networking, video downloads and cloud computing will be three prime drivers of demand for broadband in the future. Netflix, for instance, stands alone as the largest user of broadband in the U.S. and the average Netflix customer already consumes more than 1 Mb of data daily.

YouTube accounts for another huge chunk of Internet capacity with 3 billion video downloads per day. Just as impressively, YouTube received more than 48 hr. of video uploads every minute in 2011, twice the volume uploaded in 2010, according to another Wall Street Journal report cited by Qualcomm.

Cloud computing could account for substantially more broadband traffic growth than even videos. A Gartner Research study cited by Qualcomm states that only 3% of a group of 2,000 chief information officers said that most of their information technologies was supported by cloud computing at the start of 2011. But by 2015, CIOs expect that 43% of IT will be supported by the cloud. Consumer spending on cloud apps is forecast to more than triple from 2010 to 2015. Microsoft, for instance, intends to introduce a cloud-based version of its Office suite applications.

The public sector also is embracing cloud computing at local, state and federal levels. IT managers view cloud computing as a means of reducing software update and maintenance costs, thus it's likely that thousands of government workers will migrate from dedicated network servers to cloud apps for managing people, projects, programs and financial services.

Why Ku-Band for Air-to-Ground

Frequency spectrum available for mobile broadband use is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity. Broadband networks already are overloaded as evidenced by AT&T's announcement in early March that it was ending unlimited data plans. But pay-per-bit surcharges are unlikely to curb consumers' appetites for more data.

To support the growth of mobile devices, the FCC's goal is to make available by 2020 an extra 500 MHz for broadband, including 300 MHz between 225 MHz and 3.7 GHz by 2015. The FCC also has stated that it wants to make 90 MHz of mobile satellite service spectrum available for ground-based systems.

Qualcomm proposes that the FCC repurpose an entirely different 500-MHz swath of spectrum in the 14.0- to 14.5-GHz Ku-band satellite communications band to be licensed on a secondary basis for a proposed next-generation air-to-ground network. Uplinks and downlinks would share the same frequencies, but use time division duplex multiplexing to prevent ground stations or aircraft from “stepping on” each other's transmissions. Each aircraft could be assigned as much as 50 MHz to 100 MHz of bandwidth for downlinks because each ground station would serve no more than four aircraft at the same time. That much bandwidth, along with a much higher frequency, is what makes possible connection speeds 30 times faster than the 3-MHz swath allocated to Gogo in the 800-MHz band.

“This does multiple things,” Jalali says. “The quality of the broadband service improves, while the price for consumers goes way down because of the capacity of the system. We've done the economics, but it's too early to provide specific numbers.”

That chunk of Ku-band also keeps the proposed system well clear of the 1,525- to 1,660-MHz band used by safety of flight L-band satcom and satnav systems, such as Inmarsat's Aero-H/I and GPS, a key consideration. (Just ask Harbinger Capital's Phil Falcone, who invested $3 billion in LightSquared's L-band network only to find that potential interference problems with GPS made the system unworkable.)

Unlike LightSquared, Qualcomm has a long and successful track record in winning approval from the FCC for new wireless broadband uses of spectrum. Getting final approval from the Commission involves working with all stakeholders to assure that any new use of frequency spectrum is compatible with existing uses and with the FCC's announced plans for the future.

“Nobody understands licensing like Qualcomm,” says Gregg Fialcowitz, cofounder and former CEO of Row 44, a Ku-band inflight entertainment satellite broadband services provider. “Its engineers understand the consequences of interference.”

A ground-based Ku-band system operating in the 14.0- to 14.5-GHz sector, however, certainly has the potential to degrade or jam the uplink, or return link, used by Ku-band communications satellites.

So, three months prior to filing its petition for rulemaking with the FCC, Qualcomm reached out to virtually all stakeholders, including Ku-band satellite operators, airlines, avionics firms and even Gogo, to explain its plans.

First, Qualcomm assured the Ku-band satellite broadband service providers, including Boeing, Row 44 and Panasonic Avionics, that it has a vested interest in protecting and promoting Ku-band satellite communications. The firm indeed is an “incumbent user” of Ku-band satellite communications since its OmniTRACS Ku-band satellite tracking system is installed on more than 35,000 vehicles and has been operational since 1997.

To prevent interference with geostationary orbit Ku-band satellites, the proposed system is to use fine-tuned RF equipment designs and its ground stations will have directional antennae that only point within 60 deg. of true north. The paths of signals between aircraft and ground stations are well away from the plane of geostationary (GSO) Ku-band satellites over the equator, as shown in the illustration above.

Their relatively close, 134-nm spacing allows the ground stations to operate at low power. Overlapping signal patterns should enable aircraft to be handed off to adjoining stations with seamless broadband connectivity.

Each beam serving one aircraft is to be focused to 2 deg. and steered to keep it aligned with the aircraft. Ground station antennae will concentrate the 2-deg. forward or downlink beams in the horizontal plane. As an aircraft approaches within 32 nm of a ground station and the elevation angle increases above 10 deg., the network will begin a handoff to an adjoining station.

The southernmost row of ground stations, ones sited at 25 to 26 deg. latitude, poses the highest potential risk of interference to GSO Ku-band satellites because each signal beam can point up to 60 deg. off north. At such latitudes, Qualcomm plans to dial down the ground station transmit power if needed to prevent interference with satellites.

Aircraft antennae are mounted on the bottom of the fuselage and they, too, will concentrate return or uplink beams in a shallow -5-deg. cone. Antenna gain falls off rapidly with increase in elevation to prevent the aircraft return links from causing Ku-band satellite interference. The ground stations will use very high gain antennae to enable aircraft to transmit on the uplink with as little as 3 watts within a nominal 2-MHz bandwidth. In addition, it's likely that uplink transmissions will be attenuated or completely stopped while the aircraft is banking to prevent stray signals from reaching Ku-band satellites.

Qualcomm's interference analysis indicates that the combination of directional forward link and return link signal beams, along with low transmit power, will prevent interference with Ku-band satellites. In addition, the company is proposing that the FCC adopt rules for aircraft antenna emissions transmitted into the GSO satellite plane that are performance based to protect Ku-band satellites and yet provide air-to-ground system designers and operators with the flexibility needed to assure the system works as intended.

The company also plans to incorporate functionality to prevent interference with future non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) Ku-band satellites, although no such space vehicles have been announced. The firm wants to use orbit path almanac data to attenuate or shut down air-to-ground beams when a ground station, aircraft and NGSO Ku-band satellite are in alignment.

Support and Opposition From Stakeholders

Subsequent to Qualcomm's FCC filing, several firms wrote the Commission to support or object to the proposal. Those in favor include Delta Air Lines, which operates a fleet of 563 Gogo-equipped aircraft and is in the process of outfitting 255 regional aircraft with the Gogo system.

“Delta's customers have come to expect access to the Internet on every domestic flight . . . demand for inflight access to the Internet is growing steadily . . . U.S. airlines will soon look for additional capacity alternatives to satellite-based systems that suffer from high latency and high costs,” attorney Alan Tilles wrote to the FCC on behalf of the Atlanta-based air carrier.

American Airlines' letter to the FCC on the topic was equally supportive, saying the carrier “agrees with the central premise of the (Qualcomm) petition that U.S. travelers increasingly want and need broadband access while they are in flight.” Gogo service is available on several AA jetliners flying above the continental U.S. In late 2011, American started equipping the premium sections of its passenger cabins with Samsung Galaxy tablet computers to provide first- and business-class passengers with access to entertainment, social networking and cloud computing business services.

Honeywell supports Qualcomm's petition. In his letter to the FCC, Chris Benich, vice president of aerospace regulatory affairs, agreed that U.S. air travelers “increasingly want and need to have broadband access while they are in flight.” Benich noted that Honeywell has a “long legacy” of providing L-band and Ku-band satellite communications systems for aircraft, and manufactured most of the 800-MHz Gogo avionics used by airlines. He wrote that the Ku-band air-to-ground system “will successfully coexist with existing satellite communications in the 14.0- to 14.5-GHz band. . . .”

Even Gogo came out in favor of the Qualcomm proposal, and told the FCC that its position, “as a market leading provider of air-ground communications” made it “particularly qualified to comment on the need for additional air-ground spectrum.” More than 2,100 commercial and business aircraft are equipped with Gogo air-to-ground broadband systems.

Ku-band satellite service providers and the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), a trade association representing them, are not so sanguine. “(Qualcomm's) petition does not adequately address serious interference concerns between co-frequency operations or establish how the secondary ATG [air-to-ground] service could practicably coexist with primary [satellite] operations in the 14.0- to 14.5-MHz band,” SIA president Patricia Cooper wrote in a September 2011 letter to the FCC. Specifically, the SIA is concerned that Qualcomm's theoretical maximum permissible 6% Ku-band NGSO satellite interference level is too high. The SIA also believes that Qualcomm's 1% interference level with GSO satellites “is cause for concern.”

However, Jalali subsequently addressed those issues with SIA officials and he believes they have been defused. He reiterates that Qualcomm wants to protect Ku-band satellite communications because the firm's OmniTRACS vehicle tracking system depends on it. The handoff process for aircraft transiting between adjacent cells, for instance, uses “the least amount of transmit power” to attain a satisfactory carrier-to-noise ratio and a Ku-band satellite interference level “well below 1% in all scenarios.”

Boeing also objects on the grounds that the system “could significantly impact” Ku-band satellite signals and that interference “may be significantly worse than that assumed in the petition.” However, Qualcomm's proposed performance specifications for the system put a cap on the total permissible signal interference generated by all system users rather than just specifying standards for individual radios.

Most of the Ku-band satellite broadband providers' objections appear to be economic rather than technical. As an example, the SIA's Cooper writes “ . . . there is no demonstrated public interest need to commence a complex and extended rulemaking proceeding for a new ATG service when existing and planned terrestrial and satellite-based systems already meet current and expected demand for ATG communications to support inflight passenger connectivity.” Such a statement suggests that Ku-band satellite broadband services providers are more concerned that competition from the Qualcomm system may hurt sales rather than signals.

Perhaps the most-important economic challenges come from Alcatel-Lucent, the global telecommunications company headquartered in Paris. That firm's September 2011 letter to the FCC appears to suggest that the fair market cost of an FCC spectrum license for a huge 500-MHz swath of Ku-band would make such a system cost-prohibitive if its only consumers were the 400,000 to 500,000 airplane passengers, suggests Jeffrey Marks, the firm's senior counsel and director of regulatory affairs.

“The value of terrestrial spectrum is much higher than for air-to-ground,” wrote Marks. He pointed out that Gogo (nee Aircell) won a bid for a 3-MHz spectrum for its ATG system by offering only $30 million. In contrast, terrestrial mobile broadband operators pay “billions for nationwide licenses” because the U.S. population is close to 309 million, more than 600 times the peak number of air passengers. He noted that air passengers may be willing to pay a premium for broadband access in flight, but it would be “difficult for a prospective air-to-ground operator to justify paying a competitive price for spectrum in an auction with terrestrial operators.”

Alternatively, Marks believes that other and narrower slices of spectrum ought to be considered for an air-to-ground system. Alcatel-Lucent, for instance, is leading an effort to adapt terrestrial cell phone broadband systems to aircraft and it's working closely with the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) to achieve that goal. Alcatel-Lucent also believes the aviation community ought to work toward a common standard for air-to-ground broadband systems, one that would harmonize FCC standards with the CEPT's regulations for an advanced air-to-ground system.

Jalali, though, believes there are no “showstoppers,” based upon his communications with the FCC, SIA and other stakeholders. Indeed, he believes such a system could win FCC approval in as little as 24 months, but he cautions against second-guessing the rulemaking process, especially for such a large chunk of bandwidth.

Even if Qualcomm succeeds, though, its Ku-band system may need to grow by an order of magnitude to meet demand by the time it reaches the market. It's currently designed to handle 600 aircraft, but there are more than 5,000 aircraft in the air over the U.S. every day, each carrying an average of up to 100 passengers.

Fortunately for those 500,000 air travelers, Ku-band and Ka-band satellite broadband will provide additional, albeit perhaps more expensive, access to the Internet than the proposed system. With the explosive growth in mobile broadband traffic, the demand for high-speed Wi-Fi in the air will support many satellite- and ground-based broadband networks. And those developments finally will unleash the full potential of the airborne office. BCA