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Mobile Communications September 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

In-Flight Connectivity Services

Why is this topic significant?

Probably most air travelers experience major gaps in mobile-communications performance. Suppliers are intensifying efforts to fulfill pent-up demand in passenger cabins.

Description

Boeing estimates that about 22,000 commercial-jet aircraft have more than 30 seats. I estimate that about 28% are equipped with passenger-cabin Wi-Fi connections via satellite, air-to-ground, or both types of networks. Recently, new satellites enabled noticeably improved in-flight Wi-Fi performance. For example, satellite owner and in-flight-connectivity-service provider ViaSat has indicated it typically provides concurrent connections for 50 to 70 passengers on suitably equipped JetBlue aircraft, and the passengers experience data rates on the order of 12 megabits per second (Mbit/s) each. Apparently, each plane's satellite connection runs at 100 Mbit/s. Users share without contention, because some passengers don't connect, not all users connect concurrently, and most do not stream custom high-definition video via satellite (many airlines prohibit such streaming). Rather, passengers are working, gaming, streaming at low data rates, surfing satellite-broadcast channels, and bingeing on videos stored on laptops and other devices. ViaSat indicates that it can increase data rates if necessary. Another satellite owner that provides in-flight connectivity—Inmarsat—is integrating a new satellite constellation with an air-to-ground LTE (long-term-evolution) network that Deutsche Telekom is building in Europe.

All major airlines plan to upgrade and expand in-flight capabilities with help from an oligopoly of service partners, which are all gearing up for the task. Market-leader Gogo has seen criticism for mediocre service (mainly based on mature air-to-ground cellular networks) but is expanding use of internally developed low-profile (for reduced drag) satellite antennas having large apertures and phase-array elements (for increased bandwidth). Gogo, Golden Eagle Entertainment, and Panasonic Aviation are the leading in-flight connectivity services that resell satellite bandwidth. A new entrant—Thales—is also in position to resell satellite bandwidth and could initiate service in coming months.

Implications

International surveys indicate growing demand for in-flight Wi-Fi, and each incumbent in-flight-connectivity-service provider has hundreds or even thousands of backlogged planes to equip. A recent decision by American Airlines to omit seat-back entertainment systems in a new fleet of aircraft on order illustrates likely outcomes of the bring-your-own-device-aboard practice. Such omissions could let airlines invest less in user interfaces and more in network interfaces.

Competition and innovation in the commercial-space industry seems to be reducing the cost of connected-aviation services. Satellite owners may see increasing challenges and price pressures because of ongoing dramatic increases in supply of data from new and improved geostationary satellites, planned low- and mid-Earth-orbit constellations, and new air-to-ground infrastructure.

Impacts/Disruptions

Start-ups might disrupt markets. SmartSky Networks received almost a quarter-billion dollars in venture-capital funding in 2017. During late 2016, the US communications regulator approved use of two-way air-to-ground radios that the start-up developed with partner Harris. The LTE radios use a 60-megahertz-wide band of frequencies near 2.4 gigahertz—part of the same license-free band that Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and microwave ovens use. SmartSky Networks hopes to launch service in 2018, though it still needs safety approvals before installing equipment on aircraft, as well as local approvals for constructing more than 200 planned base stations in the United States.

Another start-up—Airborne Wireless Network—recently conducted a proof-of-concept test that combined air-to-air and air-to-ground communications. In-flight connectivity might be part of the company's entry strategy, but its stated ultimate goal is to use aircraft as interconnected flying base stations that compete against (or supplement) fixed base stations.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Aircraft manufacturing, air transport, airline services, spacecraft manufacturing, space transport, space services, communications services, electronics manufacturing, entertainment distribution

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Cloud-Powered Driverless Vehicles

Why is this topic significant?

Future autonomous vehicles might depend on cellular networks for safety-critical operations. But such an outcome appears highly speculative at present.

Description

The 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) is an industry organization dedicated to "promot[ing] communications solutions...to address society's connected mobility and road safety needs with applications such as autonomous driving...and intelligent transportation." It has among its members numerous major automakers, automotive-equipment suppliers, telecommunications companies, and computing companies. The 5GAA hopes—among other goals—to create and promote standards for what it terms "cellular V2X": a means of using a mix of cellular radios and short-range mesh-networking technologies to allow vehicles to communicate with each other or with "the cloud." Such a standard might take advantage of emerging candidate technologies for inclusion in the final 5G specification—especially ultrareliable and low-latency communications (URLLC), which aims to reduce round-trip latencies from a remote sensing device to an actuator device to on the order of 1 millisecond. In theory, URLLC, coupled with cellular V2X standardization, could allow for cloud-based systems that effectively perform real-time processing and analysis of data from future driverless cars and might even have direct control of the cars.

Implications

Companies that are working on driverless vehicles currently appear to avoid all reliance on external processing or connectivity for safety-critical applications. If future cars are to rely on mobile communications for safety-critical systems, they will be unsafe whenever or wherever coverage fails. Notably, major automakers—including Audi, Daimler, Ford, and Toyota—have joined industry pioneer Tesla in adopting Nvidia's high-performance automotive-computing solutions for running the artificial-intelligence systems that guide their autonomous vehicles. Nvidia claims that its solutions are powerful enough to enable full "self-contained" driverless operation, using only the data from the vehicle's onboard sensors.

But the existence and goals of the 5GAA suggest that cloud-based control over driverless vehicles might be what automotive stakeholders are considering for the long term. Toyota, notably absent from the 5GAA, recently formed its own 5GAA-like partnership with Intel and Ericcson to investigate the use of edge computing—a variant on cloud computing that incorporates hardware that is physically proximate to the end user's location—in automotive applications. The partnership—the Automotive Edge Computing Consortium—will initially investigate methods for blending cloud, edge, and onboard computing according to latency-sensitivity of various tasks.

Impacts/Disruptions

Whether and to what extent future driverless vehicles rely on mobile connectivity for safety-critical operations remains undetermined. Any such reliance would have major impacts on the transportation industry and everything surrounding it. If wireless reliability, performance, coverage, and cost improve sufficiently, cloud and edge processing could reduce burdensome costs and power requirements of onboard sensor-fusion and guidance systems in cars. With appropriate standards, communications with base stations could also enhance or fully substitute for proposed (and controversial) vehicle-to-vehicle communication, letting cars "see" beyond line of sight. Improved mobile communication plus standards could then enable coordination among cars and traffic lights, as well as avoidance of collisions arising from unseen dangers. The nature of running a cloud-connected fleet could also lead to runaway concentrations of market power in the hands of a few companies. Nevertheless, if such full-featured cellular V2X standards and practices prove to be unnecessary for commercialization of driverless vehicles, carmakers might simply continue to rely mainly on self-contained sensor-fusion and guidance systems that gradually increase their abilities to do what human drivers do.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Automotive, transportation, transit, urban planning, logistics, manufacturing, entertainment, communications, telework, security, law enforcement, retail

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: