Opening up the skies with LTE Air-to-Ground

Next Generation Communications Blog

Opening up the skies with LTE Air-to-Ground

By: Thierry Sens, Marketing Director Transportation Segment, Alcatel-Lucent

(Note:  Originally posted on Alcatel-Lucent corporate blog)

“Ladies and gentlemen, the fasten seat belt sign has now been turned on. Please ensure your mobile devices are switched off for the full duration of the flight” It is the announcement that many passengers dread as they hurry to finish up one more e-mail, or send one final text or tweet, before the start of a flight and a few hours of absence from the connected world.

But from the end of 2016 this is set to change in Europe. Inmarsat announced on November 20 that it has signed a contract with Alcatel-Lucent to develop Long-Term Evolution (LTE) air-to-ground technology, which will be delivered in partnership with service providers and airlines in 30 European countries. Alcatel-Lucent will supply the ground LTE radio infrastructure, which consists of antennas situated 100 km apart. The system is capable of providing download speeds of up to 75 mbps to planes using 2x15 MHz FDD licenses which Inmarsat owns in the Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) S-band. This makes it not only the world’s fastest airborne broadband service, but a pioneer of future in-flight services for passengers and airline operations.


Onboard communication services have long been a reality using satellite-based systems. And while these services will remain important, particularly for operations across oceans where air-to-ground is not possible, they are expensive to use and cannot provide the bandwidth of an equivalent LTE air-to-ground service.

For passengers the new service will enable access to internet, voice and data services, and gaming and infotainment services while they cross Europe at 30,000 feet travelling at 1200 km/h. However, for airlines it has the potential to revolutionize how they operate their aircraft.

At present, after a plane lands and before it takes off, data containing technical information and all of the aircraft’s parameters is physically downloaded onto hard disks. Maps, flight routes, movies and the latest TV news for passengers are simultaneously uploaded in order to prepare for the next flight. However, this is a time-consuming process which requires a large amount of dedicated resources.

The air-to-ground connection helps to avoid many of the cumbersome elements of this process. Rather than restricting uploads and downloads to the time at the airport, with air-to-ground LTE these can occur at any time. This reduces the time the plane needs to spend on the ground, improving aircraft productivity. It can also enhance maintenance. By offering real-time problem identification, maintenance crews can skip diagnosis and go straight to fixing the issue, further reducing the time an aircraft is on the ground.

Onboard services are also massively improved. Rather than uploading recorded, and often out-of-date, content, the live connection allows the transfer of information at any time, opening up the possibility of offering live TV on flights as well as video-conferencing facilities for business passengers.

Air-to-ground LTE will enhance safety and break down current barriers to an onboard service in line with passenger needs.


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