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Qualcomm's Vision For Next-Gen Airplane Wi-Fi

Qualcomm is pitching the idea of "4G on a plane" to the U.S. government. But its 300Gbps Next-Gen AG has some hurdles to clear before takeoff.

Business travelers and Facebook junkies are slowly warming up to the idea of paying for in-flight Wi-Fi services, but the technology being used today by the likes of GoGo is limited. GoGo, which provides the technical backbone for Wi-Fi on about 85% of today's connected aircraft, doesn't have the bandwidth available to offer true broadband speeds to an entire plane full of laptop or tablet users. In fact, it has admitted that it needs to quadruple capacity.

Qualcomm, on the other hand, thinks its Next-Gen AG technology can offer 300Gbps to air travelers.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, Qualcomm argued that GoGo "will have difficulty supporting the rapidly increasing demand for mobile broadband connectivity on-board aircraft as smartphones, tablets, and other mobile broadband devices continue to proliferate. For this reason, Qualcomm has designed a Next-Gen AG system that can support a very high level of demand and offer airline travelers an in-flight broadband experience equivalent to what is available in their homes, offices, parks, cars, buses, and trains."

How's it going to do that?

Qualcomm wants to get clearance from the FCC to purchase two 250MHz blocks of spectrum in the 14 - 14.5GHz range. It will place about 150 towers on the ground around the U.S. Phones don't have the power to handle using the 14GHz range of spectrum, but airplanes would be able to use them just fine.

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The 150 towers would provide up to a theoretical max 300Gbps of broadband each, though that would have to be shared between all airplanes in the vicinity and all the passengers on those planes. Even broken down into several hundred pieces, the capacity would still be enough to make an entire plane of data hogs happy.

Sound too good to be true? Well, there are a few pesky details that need to be worked out.

First, the government hasn't yet agreed to Qualcomm's idea. In fact, Qualcomm's plans have already won it opposition from other in-flight Wi-Fi providers, such as Row44. Second, Qualcomm doesn't own the spectrum yet, which would need to be sold via auction. Given the FCC's focus on freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband, it shouldn't take too much convincing to set up such an auction, but it will take a long time to hash out the particulars.

Then there's the demand for such services. (Personally speaking, I thoroughly enjoy being disconnected while on planes. With no email, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS to check, I can relax, watch a movie, or take nap.) In-flight Wi-Fi isn't cheap, either. Qualcomm argues that its system will drive down costs, but there's no solid information about what might be charged per flight for such service.

There's no denying that the idea of having real broadband available when on a plane has its own appeal. Plenty of people rely on being constantly connected. Qualcomm has made the case for its plan on paper, but that plan has a long road ahead before take-off.

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