AT&T said late Monday that it plans to offer broadband Wi-Fi services on planes, using its nationwide LTE cellular service as a backhaul to connect the plane wirelessly to the ground.
The service should be available by late 2015, AT&T said. So far, the company has not named any carriers. It also did not disclose the available bandwidth that would be availble to planes and their passengers.
AT&T's main competition in the air will be Gogo, a wireless service which announced so-called ATG-4 (air to ground) tech at 9.8 Mbps for 2013. Last September, Gogo announced a 60-Mbps upgrade, which uses a network of cellular towers to field web-page requests and other information being passed from notebooks, tablets, and phones on the plane. That information is passed to a satellite, which then sends the data to the plane at much higher throughput. Virgin was named as the first carrier to use the new technology.
AT&T's technology will use a receiver from Honeywell, which will use a satellite as a backup connection if needed or if the plane is over water, according to The Wall Street Journal. AT&T will require FAA and FCC approval for that, however, the paper said.
AT&T will likely have an advantage in terms of coverage and signal bandwidth, according to Tim Farrar, a wireless consultant. AT&T's network of cellular towers, about 10,000 or so, could dwarf the 300 or so Gogo uses, he said via Twitter. The available 5x5 spectrum that AT&T uses is "plenty," he said.
It's unclear what effect this will have on pricing, however. Gogo charges $16 for an all-day pass, or $5 per hour.
Unfortunately, even though an AT&T wireless signal is being beamed to the plane, don't expect to be able to use your AT&T phone. Even if it were allowed, connecting would be unlikely due to link budget constraints and the fact that an airplane's metal shell makes for a good Faraday cage, blocking wireless signals to and from the aircraft, Farrar said.
AT&T also said that in-plane use would be include "browsing the Internet, checking email, keeping in touch with friends and family through social networking and messaging services, and increasing business productivity" — not taking or placing calls. So that will have to wait for a future update, it appears.
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