Qualcomm is exploring the last 4G frontier: The sky

Qualcomm’s(s qcom) wireless network technologies already dominate the mobile broadband networks on U.S. land, now it wants to dominate the skies above it. Qualcomm is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to clear a huge swathe of spectrum in the higher frequencies for a network that could support the eye-popping bandwidth of 300 Gbps. The devices such a network would connect wouldn’t be smartphones or laptops – at least not directly – but airplanes.
FierceWireless’ Mike Dano dug up the FCC filings and wrote an excellent, detailed report you can find here. Here’s a summary of the major points:

  • The proposed network, which Qualcomm is calling Next-Gen AG, would make use of 500 MHz of spectrum in the 14 GHz band. That’s a huge amount – more than all of the nationwide bandwidth  available to the entire U.S. cellular industry today – but at such high frequencies, available airwaves are plentiful. The problem is they’re useless for ground-based cellular networks since those airwaves require enormous power to propagate any reasonable distance. Your phone doesn’t have the juice to communicate with a distant tower at higher frequencies, but an airplane does.
  • While the Next Gen-AG’s huge carrier bandwidths would allow theoretical speeds of 300 Gbps, you have to remember that the cellular network is shared capacity. Qualcomm proposes that only 150 towers anchored to the earth would be necessary, compared to the tens of thousands required for a terrestrial network. A single cell’s 300 gigs of capacity would be shared by hundreds of airplanes at any given moment, and airlines would then further subdivide that capacity. For instance, they could use the network to offer on-demand entertainment to each seat and sell bandwidth to individual passengers via Wi-Fi.
  • That still leaves a lot of capacity for each plane. Right now in-flight connectivity services like Gogo utilize CDMA 3G carriers of 3 MHz in size. That’s a decent data connection for a single laptop or smartphone, but not for hundreds. The new network would use wideband OFDMA technologies similar to the TD-LTE networks Clearwire(s clwr) and Sprint(s s) plan to build. Basically, Qualcomm wants to replace the 3G and satellite networks linking airplanes today with 4G networks on steroids.

It sounds like a great idea, but the question as to whether passengers on airplanes want access to such awesome bandwidth – or are at least willing to pay for it. According to USA Today, in-flight Wi-Fi use is increasing gradually, but it’s hardly blowing up. Business travelers are choosing to relax on flights rather than remain in constant contact with their companies. The $10 to $15 cost of a Wi-Fi link for a single leg can also be a turn off.
Still, perceptions could change as more connected entertainment devices like tablets are sold. A business traveler may want to sign out of e-mail, but he might not feel the same about his cloud-based music library or movie connection. And ultra-high-capacity networks like Next-Gen AG could drive in-flight connection costs down considerably due to its massive economies of scale.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user davipt