When Will Commercial Aircraft Install And Benefit From 5G?

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Due to challenges in design and certification, commercial aircraft are often the last equipment to get the new communication tools proliferating throughout consumer and other business markets. With 5G cellular networks now going into place, how soon might these support airline travel, what will the benefits be, and what sort of modifications will be necessary? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel of the recent Connected Aviation Conference.

Opportunities will be coming soon. David Fox, Deutsche Telekom’s program lead for the 4G European Aviation Network, says his company is installing 2,000 new 5G sites in Germany alone. “5G is a natural evolution, it will give more bandwidth,” Fox argues. He sees 5G as a natural fit for China and the Middle East, and a “no brainer” in the U.S. Other telcommunication operators will provide local coverage and roaming services will hold it all together.

Ammar Khan is managing director of Skyfive, which is partnering with Airbus to deliver 5G to China, a country that skipped 4G deployment. He cites the small form factors required by cellular connectivity as a big advantage for aircraft.

Aditya Chatterjee, SVP for aero markets at the satellite company SES, argues that 5G cellular networks will be integrated with GEO and non-GEO satellite networks to provide the best seamless home-to-destination connectivity. “You cannot run an optimum passenger experience on one technology. We want to work with telco to provide a seamless passenger experience.”  

Gogo is already rolling out its 5G network for business aviation, according to Jim MacDougall, VP product management. The fourth quarter of 2021 will see four U.S. sites, the network will be further built out in the first half of 2022, and 5G will be launched for the whole U.S. in the second half of next year, to be followed by coverage of Canada and Mexico.

To attract customers, “We must make equipage as easy as possible,” MacDougall says. Inside an aircraft, he envisions adding one LRU, a 5G modem and four cables, and replacing two external 4G antennas with 5G antennas, using the same base plate and connections to the interior. “There will be no new penetrations.” And upgrades to 5G will usually be done during other maintenance or modifications, so they should not increase downtime.

Chatterjee says SES is working with suppliers to ensure aircraft terminals are compatible with both GEO and non-GEO satellites, and with 4G and 5G cellular communication. 

Khan sees 5G requiring only 10 kilograms of equipment, which can be quickly installed. Fox agrees that equipment will be ultralight and easy to install. “The transition will be smooth and easy.”

The benefits? Fox argues that, compared with 4G, 5G will offer more redundancy, higher speeds, lower latency and higher bandwidth. He says surveys of passenger appetites for different types of content indicate these benefits will be highly valued. MacDougall estimates that average 5G speeds will be three to five times faster than 4G, and 5G will improve maximum speeds even more dramatically for his business aviation customers. But 5G advantages will depend on the spectrum available in each region.

So 5G is certain to come eventually for many airline aircraft, with timing depending on the building out of local networks and other factors. It looks like China and Europe may go first, with the U.S. also coming along fairly quickly. But roaming services will be necessary for the international business passengers that are likely to be the most lucrative customers.