FCC seeks comment on AT&T’s inflight connectivity proposal


The Federal Communications Commission is seeking public comment on AT&T’s request that rules governing Wireless Communications Services (WCS) be revised to support its planned launch of inflight connectivity service in the United States.

In a public notice released yesterday, the FCC said comments pertaining to AT&T’s petition are due on 22 September and reply comments are due on 6 October.

This spring, AT&T announced it intends to launch a 4G LTE-based air-to-ground (ATG) service in the continental United States in partnership with connectivity hardware provider Honeywell. On 8 August, AT&T’s specific plan became clearer when the company petitioned the FCC to open a rulemaking proceeding to amend rules governing the C and D blocks of the WCS in the 2.3 GHz band.

“The proposed amendments will enable AT&T to use its C and D block spectrum for the air-to-ground component of its planned LTE-based inflight connectivity service for airlines and passengers,” said AT&T in its petition.

“To protect the operations and customers of Sirius XM Radio from harmful interference,” added AT&T, “the proposed rules include restrictions on transmitter power levels, limits on out-of-band emissions and specific requirements for coordination with Sirius XM.”

At present, AT&T cannot launch its proposed 4G LTE inflight connectivity service without this regulatory relief because, as described by the firm, use of the C and D blocks “will not fit neatly” within the literal words of the Commission’s existing WCS rules.

AT&T is in an interesting situation. It found itself with spectrum it acquired but couldn’t fully exploit due to interference issues with terrestrial, so pointing antennas up to the sky seems as logical an option as any.

Suggesting that its proposal would “serve the public interest by permitting a robust nationwide deployment of AT&T’s innovative inflight connectivity service using currently fallow spectrum while at the same time preserving adequate interference protection to users of adjacent bands”, AT&T has asked the FCC to grant its petition “expeditiously”.

In separate activity concerning the use of spectrum for inflight connectivity, Qualcomm and Gogo continue to petition the FCC to adopt rules authorizing air-ground mobile broadband service on a secondary license basis in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band – the band is within the Ku band primarily used for satellite communications.

Both companies want to see the spectrum used for US terrestrial-based, next generation inflight connectivity service, which could support connection speeds of 100 mbps. However, they do not see eye-to-eye in how this should be accomplished.

Gogo wants the FCC to split the band into four 125 MHz-wide spectrum licenses, arguing that there are enough interested parties to support a four-license auction. On the flip side, Qualcomm believes a four-license divide would create a bandwidth limitation such that the owner of a single 125 MHz license would not be able to provide full broadband connectivity to passengers. It has proposed that the FCC create two 250 MHz blocks.

The FCC has not yet decided if – and how – it will auction this spectrum to support a next generation inflight connectivity service, though it does seem to be leaning towards an auction. Should the Commission press forward, the likes of Qualcomm, AT&T, Verizon and perhaps even inflight entertainment heavyweight Panasonic Avionics could opt to participate in the auction. This is a concern to Gogo investors, who worry that companies with far deeper pockets could sweep in and gain an advantage over Gogo, which owns the paltry 4MHz of spectrum in the 800 MHz band currently dedicated to ATG.

However, if AT&T is successful in its petition to use its  C and D block spectrum  for ATG services, AT&T competitor Verizon might also be incentivized to try to leapfrog AT&T. Verizon is understood to have studied Gogo through a micro lens for some time, and is trying to ascertain whether it makes sense to enter the market alone or in partnership with a firm that has already done much of the hard work in securing deals with US carriers and hardware certification. As previously reported, Wall Street insiders have been buzzing that Verizon and Gogo are in talks. However, Verizon has not responded to repeated requests for comment. Gogo declined to comment.

As of 31 March, some 76% of connected aircraft in the US were fitted with Gogo connectivity. Gogo’s largest customer, Delta Air Lines, offers Gogo’s ATG service across its mainline fleet, and is in the process of rolling out the company’s Ku-band connectivity solution on its long-haul fleet.

The fall schedule for fitting Gogo Ku connectivity to Delta’s Boeing 757-200s, 777-200s, 767-300s and Airbus A330s is nothing short of intense. The system will be installed on as many as four long-haul aircraft at a time using Delta TechOps’ facilities positioned around the country. Few analysts covering the connectivity sector seem to appreciate Delta TechOp’s sizable contribution to its install program with Gogo. The carrier is also using Gogo technology as the backbone of its new Delta Studio wireless IFE offering.