Deutsche Telekom to trial 4G LTE inflight connectivity in Q3

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A passenger using an iPad on an aircraft.Feature: Deutsche Telekom (DT), together with Inmarsat, are the force behind the hybrid satellite/4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) European Aviation Network (EAN), due to launch in 2018.

At the 2016 Aircraft eEnablement Connectivity and IFE Conference, David Coiley, Vice President Aviation, Inmarsat, outlined how the EAN system will work, concentrating on the satellite segment.

But what about the 4G LTE air-to-ground (ATG) segment? That is being handled by telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom (DT), perhaps better known around the world for its T-Mobile brand.

Since the launch of its inflight satellite-based Wi-Fi service with partner Lufthansa at the end of 2010, DT has established itself in the airline industry with many airlines offering it, including Aer Lingus, Air France, American Airlines, Etihad, Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, Kenya Airways, Singapore Airlines, Transaero, Turkish Airlines.

DT is the Internet service provider for their inflight Wi-Fi services for passengers. The service login portal is hosted on DT’s Wi-Fi platform and the company provides all authentication, charging, payment, administration and billing.

The company partnered with Panasonic Avionics to be the Internet service provider for its Global Communications Services (GCS), the high-speed broadband Internet, data and voice communications services to passengers and crew, using a GSM or Wi-Fi-enabled device.

Panasonic sets up the airborne network, operates the Ku-band satellite link between aircraft and ground and provides the GCS hardware on board for the airlines, while DT manages the Internet gateway and handles passenger billing and customer support for Wi-Fi services.

Inflight 4G LTE

Flags at Deutsche Telekom HQ. They first tested inflight 4G LTE a few years ago.
Deutsche Telekom first tested inflight 4G LTE a few years ago.

But inflight ATG 4G LTE is a new venture for DT, isn’t it? Not quite.

DT has been looking at 4G LTE inflight connectivity for some time. “Get Connected’s” Steve Nichols first wrote about some DT’s LTE flight tests about three years ago.

Successful tests using a direct-air-to-ground communication system proved that a solution based on LTE, the fourth generation mobile broadband access technology, could be highly attractive.

As an alternative to current satellite solutions, LTE technology could be a more efficient, cost-effective solution for continental flights, offering high-speed connections for passengers via onboard Wi-Fi and onboard cellular services.

In 2014, Antje Williams, then Managing Director for T-Mobile HotSpot, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom told Steve: “The direct-air-to ground solution is very interesting for us and considered a major way forward to continue extending our service to European continental airline fleets.

“At the same time, there is a huge interest on the side of the airline industry due to the economic advantages of LTE. We are pushing for that solution and remain optimistic that regulatory aspects and spectrum assignment issues will be resolved soon.”

And resolved they were, meaning the European Aviation Network is now on its way.

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Speaking at the 2016 Aircraft eEnablement Connectivity and IFE Conference, Daniel Schultz, Senior Manager In-flight Communication, Deutsche Telekom AG, said: “We’ve already proven that we can build really good and reliable networks on the ground. The next step is to take that into the sky.

“European airspace is some of the busiest in the world with 22,500 flights daily on average and 500m passengers per annum.

“Passenger data consumption is increasing, from an average 15mb per user per flight in 2013 to more than 200Mb in 2015.”

European Aviation Network

He said 4G LTE is a very mature technology and very scalable. The aero network will be similar to the ground network, but on a different band and will need a different modem.

“The peak data rates will be 75Mbps,” Schultz said, “And the network will offer low latency of around 40ms as it is not satellite based. Sites will load quicker as handshaking can take place much faster.”

He added that the investment for airlines will be low due to the lightweight (less than 9.5kg), simple avionic equipment. The antenna, which fits on the bottom of the fuselage, weighs less than 1Kg and is small enough to fit in your hand.

“There are no moving parts, so it will offer a high mean time between failures (MTBF),” Schultz said.

“We will start with 300 cell sites, but can quickly add more capacity. If we see high demand around airports like Heathrow we could quickly add more.”

Schultz added that Deutsche Telekom is not using new towers or poles for the system, but its existing cell tower sites with the antennas mounted on top.

“Obviously, sites with high mountains nearby or buildings will not be used,” Schultz said.

Deutsche Telekom says it has has identified the partners it wants to work with across Europe.

“Flight trials will start at the end of 2016 with a pilot in Q1/Q2 2017. We aim to have a full service running by 2018,” he concluded.

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