Getting a 5G air-to-ground network into service in the USA is a tough task, with schedules continuing to slip and questions about the hardware involved. But in China the new services are expected to launch soon, and expand quickly. Powered by Chinese manufacturer ZTE, a new network could be online in a matter of months.
Last August SkyFive signed a strategic partnership with Airbus to further develop inflight connectivity solutions in the country. At that time Dr. Ammar Kahn, SkyFive Chief Operating Officer, noted a “strong national policy” from the Chinese government and “alignment” among all stakeholders, including the local telco providers.
Details of the ZTE network corroborate many of those previously share by SkyFive regarding its plans in China, including significant spectrum dedicated to the service to ensure performance on-board.
Bringing broadband on board
The Gogo ATG network uses a 4 MHz band of spectrum to deliver connectivity to planes in North America. The SkyFive trial in New Zealand uses 30 MHz of spectrum. Gogo and SmartSky promise a 60 MHz channel on their next-gen ATG implementations, significantly increasing capacity, though neither is flying yet.
And then there’s the China offering.
ZTE is quoted as promising a 100 MHz range for the solution, a number that echoes SkyFive’s prior comments on the topic. Network latency will be low thanks to the ATG architecture, besting even the LEO networks now launching. Combined with the beam-forming technology to reduce network congestion and improved spectrum reuse, the overall solution has the potential be massively more performant than any in-flight network flying today.
The Chinese version of the network also promises better range than the Inmarsat EAN platform, built on the SkyFive platform. This leads to fewer towers required and, ultimately, a faster and less expensive deployment. Full coverage for the country could be accomplished with fewer than 1,000 towers.
Once China commits to a solution or technology the full backing of the government means that challenges and obstacles have a habit of disappearing. In the case of the 5G ATG network commitment this should be significantly beneficial to SkyFive, ZTE, and others developing similar solutions. Combine the off-the-shelf nature of most the components with China’s willingness to push on infrastructure and the network could come online rapidly once approved and validated.
SkyFive’s Kahn believes the group will evolve to multiple site deployments in a day, bringing regions online within months, not years. That the high-speed back-haul infrastructure is already in place at the tower locations also helps in the deployment timing.
This is a timeline massively faster than the Gogo, SmartSky or EAN networks. It also has not yet actually happened. But, again, the support of the Chinese government on this infrastructure project should prove useful to the technology.
The market for in-flight connectivity in China has always been a promising one. Vendors lined up to secure access to the market and local partners to help sell services to airlines. But none of the outsiders have seen success in the country’s massive single-aisle domestic market.
FTS secured a satellite deal with a couple smaller airlines and has the first aircraft online. That was a major accomplishment, and more hardware is shipping in to China to help complete the fitting of those planes.
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