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Networking

AT&T to take on Gogo with in-flight Wi-Fi

AT&T said late Monday that it plans to offer broadband Wi-Fi services on planes, using its nationwide LTE cellular service as a backhaul to connect the plane wirelessly to the ground.

The service should be available by late 2015, AT&T said. So far, the company has not named any carriers. It also did not disclose the available bandwidth that would be availble to planes and their passengers.

AT&T’s main competition in the air will be Gogo, a wireless service which announced so-called ATG-4 (air to ground) tech at 9.8 Mbps for 2013. Last September, Gogo announced a 60-Mbps upgrade, which uses a network of cellular towers to field web-page requests and other information being passed from notebooks, tablets, and phones on the plane. That information is passed to a satellite, which then sends the data to the plane at much higher throughput. Virgin was named as the first carrier to use the new technology.

AT&T’s technology will use a receiver from Honeywell, which will use a satellite as a backup connection if needed or if the plane is over water, according to The Wall Street Journal. AT&T will require FAA and FCC approval for that, however, the paper said.

AT&T will likely have an advantage in terms of coverage and signal bandwidth, according to Tim Farrar, a wireless consultant. AT&T’s network of cellular towers, about 10,000 or so, could dwarf the 300 or so Gogo uses, he said via Twitter. The available 5x5 spectrum that AT&T uses is “plenty,” he said.

It’s unclear what effect this will have on pricing, however. Gogo charges $16 for an all-day pass, or $5 per hour.

Unfortunately, even though an AT&T wireless signal is being beamed to the plane, don’t expect to be able to use your AT&T phone. Even if it were allowed, connecting would be unlikely due to link budget constraints and the fact that an airplane’s metal shell makes for a good Faraday cage, blocking wireless signals to and from the aircraft, Farrar said.

AT&T also said that in-plane use would be include “browsing the Internet, checking email, keeping in touch with friends and family through social networking and messaging services, and increasing business productivity”—not taking or placing calls. So that will have to wait for a future update, it appears.

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