Superfast broadband in the skies on the way following Ofcom decision

22 Jan 2014

Passengers on airplanes, boats and other vehicles are set to enjoy faster in-transit broadband after UK telecoms regulator Ofcom cleared the way for the use of new earth stations on vehicles that connect to geostationary satellites.

Passengers currently access the internet on vehicles using smartphones and internet-connected ‘dongles’, or by using entertainment consoles on aircraft or Wi-Fi on trains. However, in remote locations – particularly on planes and ships – speeds have been limited by the technology so far available.

Earth stations will allow much faster data speeds, as Ofcom is making available a relatively large amount of high-frequency spectrum3 for their use.

Recent advances in technology have improved the effectiveness of earth stations. Newer antennas are capable of maintaining stable pointing accuracy, allowing the earth station to track the satellite closely – even when mounted on a fast-moving vehicle.

This makes it easier to maintain a reliable internet connection, Ofcom said.

Planes, trains and automobiles

“We want travellers to benefit from superfast broadband on the move at the kind of speeds they expect from their connection at home,” said Philip Marnick, group director of Spectrum at Ofcom.

“Today’s decision means that operators of trains, boats and planes will soon be able to begin the process of making these valuable services available to their passengers.”

Devices that are mounted on land-based vehicles, such as trains, will be made exempt from the need for a spectrum licence altogether.

Earth stations mounted on aircraft or ships will need to be licensed by Ofcom, as these vehicles are capable of crossing into other countries’ jurisdictions.

Ofcom said it expects to be able to accept applications to license ship-mounted earth stations by February, and is working with the Civil Aviation Authority to make licensing for aircraft-mounted devices available in a similar timeframe.

Regulations covering the exemption from licensing for land-based earth stations are expected to be in force by the summer.

The first commercial deployments of the technology on vehicles in the UK are likely to begin later this year.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years