AT&T plans in-flight internet service


Want faster in-flight internet? AT&T may be the solution to your needs as the carrier announced this week plans to have 4G/LTE-based systems on board aircraft by the end of 2015. The company will, in essence, leverage their massive ground-based coverage footprint and bandwidth capacity to serve up connectivity in the sky. Additional antennae will be added to towers on the ground, this time pointed up rather than down, to provide the ground half of the infrastructure. For the airplane half AT&T partnered with Honeywell Avionics to provide the on-board systems which will connect with the LTE signal on the ground.

imageAT&T’s part in the efforts will be limited to coverage only in the continental US as that’s where it has spectrum and towers. According to a WSJ story John Stankey, AT&T’s Chief Strategy Officer, believes that Gogo is not quite the incumbent power others have suggested and that it will be possible to unseat their commercial aviation contracts as they start to expire in 2018. Stankey also indicated to the WSJ that the company was looking to invest “hundreds of millions of dollars” to get the service up and running; the press release announcing the move says that AT&T “does not expect additional capital expenditures required for this initiative to be material.” And in many ways this is what could spell trouble for Gogo. If AT&T can invest hundreds of millions of dollars and it not be materially significant that’s going to be hard for the much smaller, but established, company to counter. Of course Gogo has a lot of new offerings in their product pipeline, mostly satellite based (GTO and 2Ku have both been announced in the past 7 months). But there will be significant costs incurred as Gogo gets those online and on planes.

AT&T also has the ability to provide a much greater density of coverage for the terrestrial network. There are tens of thousands of towers across the country with AT&T hardware already installed. Aiming additional antennae mounted on those towers up towards the sky will support the aviation service. Not all the towers will need to have new antennae installed – Stankey suggests fewer than 20% of the towers will get the kit. That’s still potentially thousands of towers equipped with the hardware, far more than the hundreds Gogo currently has. And fewer planes on each tower means less sharing of bandwidth/spectrum at any given point in time. Combine that with the new system’s LTE-based technology and the potential for significantly higher in-flight connectivity speeds is very real.

From a hardware perspective the Honeywell partnership is also interesting. Honeywell indicated it will be designing the system to also offer satellite connectivity as an option, allowing customers to transition between ground and aerial service as they fly in and out of the terrestrial coverage area. Honeywell says it will support two different satellite constellations, the L-band network in operation today and Inmarsat’s GX Aviation constellation which is based on the much higher bandwidth Ka-band service. L-band is slow but it is globally available. GX should be much faster and cheaper once it enters service which should be in 2015, in time to launch in parallel with the AT&T offering. Pairing the ground and satellite systems will potentially provide similar service to Gogo’s GTO platform in terrestrial markets, though the Honeywell solution will be able to operate in satellite-only mode outside the USA, providing truly global coverage; GTO will require ground-connectivity as well limiting its effective footprint.

The speed numbers being suggested by AT&T for each aircraft will exceed those offered today by any technology, including the current market leading LiveTV/ViaSat systems installed on JetBlue and some United planes. Based on previous statements it seems quite reasonable that LiveTV/ViaSat could open up the pipe to support similar numbers to what AT&T is suggesting (60+ megabits/second/aircraft) and Gogo suggests similar speeds will be possible with their GTO product and 2Ku products. Of course, bandwidth comes at a cost and the Ku-based systems are more expensive per megabyte than Ka-based offerings. AT&T is in an interesting position of already owning massive amounts of LTE spectrum and having mostly completed the hardware investments for carrying the data traffic. That adds up to a scenario where their bandwidth costs are likely to be much lower than those of the competition. And upgrading to faster LTE-based systems over time should be more affordable than launching new satellites.

Of course, there’s still the part where AT&T and Honeywell have to get the systems built, get the new technology certified by the FAA and get customers to sign up for the service. But this is announcement has significant potential to change the landscape of a rapidly evolving market. That’s good news for customers, even if it is business aviation, not commercial aircraft, which are likely to see this service flying in the near future.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

5 Comments

  1. This is good news for passengers. More competition should bring speeds up and prices down. And if ATT starts to have success in this area, is there any reason why Verizon couldn’t jump in the ring just as easily?

  2. Where did AT&T talk about speeds of 60Mbps? Also, is that 60Mbps to the plane or to the seat?

  3. “Rapidly evolving” – ain’t that the truth. Virgin America is now eyeing 2Ku; it might actually leapfrog its own planned launch of GTO (pending certification, etc, etc).

  4. GOGO is painfully slow and I noticed on my flight to FTU, the prices on American were raised again. I paid for a few hours on my phone for 7.00. That is all it is worth. Frankly speaking I think GOGO is not doing well in this area, but I could be wrong. Still travelling on a very long flight overseas I wish I did have GOGO or somethign similar. At least for email and such.

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