Qualcomm’s hopes of establishing a next generation air-ground mobile service in the United States to support “multi-gigabit per second” broadband connectivity to aircraft has run into staunch opposition from myriad stakeholders, including Boeing and the Satellite Industry Association. This, in turn, has opened up fresh questions about how inflight Wi-Fi provider Gogo might keep pace with growing demand.
Since 2011 Qualcomm has been pressing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to initiate a proceeding that would establish a new terrestrial-based, secondary status air-ground mobile service in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band (which is within the Ku band primarily used for satellite communications). The move was backed by Gogo customers American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Virgin America, as well as Gogo itself.
Gogo currently operates in the 800 MHz band currently allocated to air-ground services in the United States. Earlier this year, it announced it would acquire the 1 MHz slice of spectrum owned by JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV, giving Gogo a total 4 MHz of spectrum and total exclusivity in the 800 MHz band, and a much-needed capacity boost. But Gogo’s need for additional air-ground spectrum has increased as consumers’ mobile broadband use has grown at an unprecedented rate.
In a September 2011 filing with the FCC – in which Gogo generally supported Qualcomm’s proposal (in a manner beneficial to it) – Gogo confirmed that interest in inflight Wi-Fi is growing rapidly. It noted that social networking sites are especially popular among airline passengers, and that some 50% of all Gogo customers use FaceBook, making it “the most popular inflight application”. (Gogo is currently rolling out an upgrade called ATG-4 to meet increasing demand.)
Access to the 14 GHz band on a secondary basis, argued Gogo, would offer “a rare opportunity for the commission to meet growing consumer demand for improved air-ground data service”.
Gogo’s largest customer, Delta, in January 2012 also threw its written support behind the Qualcomm petition, saying the demand for inflight access to the Internet “is growing steadily, both in the number of customers and in bandwidth demands.”
This summer, however, Boeing weighed in, saying: “The introduction of a new, terrestrial ATG [air-to-ground] service into a band already intensively used by the satellite industry could significantly impact existing and future services, and ATG interference into these services may be significantly worse than Qualcomm assumed in its petition. Additionally, Qualcomm has not adequately shown that an ATG service in the band could tolerate interference it receives from existing operations.”
In October, the Satellite Industry Association – which counts Boeing, Panasonic Avionics, ViaSat and many others as members – reiterated its opposition to Qualcomm’s petition, citing potential interference with satellite communications.
Unclear if Qualcomm will be successful in persuading the FCC to move forward with its plan, “it might be conceivable for Gogo to try to make use of Inmarsat’s L-band spectrum for both uplinks and downlinks”, suggests consultancy TMF Associates in a report that will be released next week.
LightSquared, which holds a cooperation agreement with Inmarsat, has faced numerous challenges in trying to launch a 4G LTE network; it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year. There has been much industry buzz over whether Gogo might strike a deal with Inmarsat for spectrum should LightSquared’s plans not come to fruition. Asked by the APEX editor’s blog to comment during the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, in April, Gogo declined, citing the quiet period associated with its SEC filing for an initial public offering.