Inflight connectivity provider Aircell has unveiled an extensive expansion plan that initially quadruples its current Gogo offering’s capacity and eventually introduces the company to the potentially lucrative, satellite-based long-haul market.

Aircell currently dominates the U.S. inflight connectivity sector with an air-to-ground system that uses about 100 towers across North America (mostly within the contiguous 48 states). From this base, the provider intends to first boost both commercial and business aviation usage across the region, and then use that as a foundation for international expansion.

The first phase of this “technology roadmap,” a platform Aircell is calling ATG-4, is scheduled for launch in the first half of 2012 and will enable commercial operators to quadruple their current capacity within each aircraft with minimal cost and retrofit requirements, the company says. It will also let Aircell strengthen a new e-commerce and content package it expects to launch in the middle of this year that would allow airlines to download content, such as streaming movies, directly to passengers’ own mobile devices.

“The airlines are asking for this,” Aircell President and CEO Michael Small tells Aviation Week in an interview.

While the privately owned company is keeping implementation details to itself, Executive VP-Airline Group John Happ in the same interview explains the likely process. “We are offering the right fit for the right aircraft. Those clients with larger aircraft, say Boeing 757s, will need greater capacity than on their smaller aircraft, and those aircraft will probably be the first to offer [ATG-4].

“And there are other operators, like Virgin America, that operate smaller aircraft such as the [Airbus] A319s, but the pick-up [for inflight Internet access] is high, so again the new system will be helpful,” says the EVP.

But while Aircell’s current ground-based system should satisfy demand requirements, the company also understands that the growth sector for both usage and revenues is on long-haul operations, a market that requires a satellite infrastructure.

“This is the market to look at,” says Small.

There are two options available to Aircell, and while it is prepared to consider both, its strategy commits to Ka-band technology currently being developed. Under Aircell’s plan, it will provide such a service within the continental U.S. by 2013 and globally by 2015. This timeline requires some significant advancement, notably in antenna technology, as well as some strategic decisions for Aircell, which must decide what satellite network to use and if it will develop its own proprietary technology or work with third-party vendors.

“It takes a lot of intellectual capital to develop this technology,” says Small, noting that Aircell “is in a very good financial position” to break into the sector.

Small also points to Aircell’s current customer base, which includes most of the U.S. major carriers, as an inherent advantage over its competitors. “Our initial focus will be on providing these airlines international capabilities,” he notes.

Aircell is also offering the established Ku-band-based connectivity system to these same airlines should they require long-haul connectivity prior to the Ka-band’s launch, although he says that it will provide the service, which can be costly, only if requested, and that the offer will probably “jump on the back of someone else.”

While the commercial sector is a driver for this expansion (Small forecasts that commercial will account for 80% of the company’s revenues in five years), business aviation remains an important sector for growth and comprises almost 5,000 of the 6,000 aircraft using Gogo. In recognition of that, the company is planning to unveil specific plans for general aviation ahead of the Aircraft Electronics Association’s 54th Annual AEA International Convention & Trade Show in Reno, Nev., this month.