SPEAKERS’ CORNER: The Future Of InFlight Mobile Telephony: 3G or 4G? by Dr. Axel Jahn

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IFExpress first met Dr. Axel Jahn, TriaGnoSys, Managing Director at AIX in Hamburg. His then little company had developed a small, lightweight, inflight connectivity box (aeroBTS) that had the satcom radios, server, GSM/GPR phone radio and WAP, all in one box. Ideal for biz jets, we dubbed the product “The One-Box-Wonder”. The name stuck and so did the product and today, busy Axel wanted to tell our readers all about the future of inflight telephony (3G or 4G?) in our Speakers’ Corner feature. Read on:

THE FUTURE OF INFLIGHT MOBILE TELEPHONY: 3G OR 4G?
by Dr Axel Jahn, Managing Director, TriaGnoSys

As smartphone penetration increases and the applications available become increasingly sophisticated, people are becoming more and more used to using their phones all the time. This is also true in the air. OnAir, which provides both mobile phone networks and Wi-Fi, reports that, when both networks are available, 97% of passengers choose to use their mobile phones. And that is using a 2.5G network.

It is clear passengers’ desire to use their mobile phones during flights is not going to go away. The key question for techies like us is what the next development should be: 3G or 4G? We think 4G is the answer.

At first glance, that looks like the wrong answer because 3G is ubiquitous. It is true there are varying standards for 3G, for example China has a proprietary version. Nevertheless, it is available throughout the developed world. On the other hand, 4G is in its infancy and it will take a while to become the norm. It therefore appears to make sense to develop 3G for inflight connectivity.

But there are other factors. Even though 4G is only just coming onto the market, it isn’t something new. It is also called LTE – Long Term Evolution – which says everything. It has been under development for a long time and the fact that telecoms companies are not sufficiently confident to bring it to market means it is ready. As we saw with 3G, once handset manufacturers start enabling it as standard, adoption rates accelerate fast. There are rumours that the iPhone 5 will have 4G this autumn and we know what iPhone developments do to the market.

4G will be here to stay for a while. The history of the various generations of standards is that each one lasts longer that its predecessor. 2G was quickly overtaken by 2.5G; 3G took a little longer to take hold and remains the dominant standard. Once 4G takes the baton, it is likely to remain around for a while. It will provide such a major step-change in the available bandwidth that it will take years before we start using it all.

There is another aspect to the timing. One thing we have learned is that it takes a long time to develop inflight connectivity technology. The WirelessCabin project, which we managed, took over two years to get the first inflight GSM demonstrator flying in 2004 and it was another three years before the first commercial flight. We actually looked at 3G then, but came to the conclusion that LTE advances would mean inflight 3G would be behind the curve before it became available. In fact, we have already started work on a 4G solution and our (conservative) projections show it will be ready for commercial launch by 2015, by when 4G will be widely used on the ground – though GSM and GPRS will remain available so anyone who doesn’t have a 4G phone won’t miss out. Happily, that coincides with the launch of Inmarsat’s Ka-band service because the extra bandwidth will be required for 4G.

Finally, there are technological reasons for avoiding inflight 3G. The obvious one is that 4G/LTE provides much higher bandwidth and advanced architecture, so can be used to for wireless streaming of IFE content in the aircraft, meaning passengers can use their own devices to access that content. That will be of particular interest for aircraft that do not have embedded IFE systems, both to provide enhanced passenger service and as a potential ancillary revenue generator.

It is the 4G architecture that allows this to happen. It is much more flexible than 3G and in particular that means it can be used to provide local content without going over the satellite, something that can’t be done with 3G. Also, unlike 3G, 4G is truly a global standard with no regional variations, so everyone will be able to use it during flights.

4G is the right choice for the next stage of inflight mobile connectivity. The timing works, it is a more appropriate technology and it will be around for years to come.

Contact Dr. Axel Jahn

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