Spectrum at 30,000 Feet is Getting Harder to Find, Airplanes Maxing Out

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As passengers bring more devices on planes and expect to connect to the internet, wireless spectrum capacity on planes is getting taxed. That’s especially true as more customers connect to wireless headphones via Bluetooth to listen to entertainment on their own devices as well as interact with entertainment that airlines provide inflight.

It’s a looming issue for airlines and their suppliers, reports Runway Girl Network. “We are experiencing this on virtually every aircraft we have…[A] large number of people  all have their device…consuming all 2.4GHz and 5GHz capacity in the plane, competing with each other — and people have more than one device,” says Panasonic Avionics VP, Global Communications Services, David Bruner. Panasonic Avionics designs, manufactures, sells and installs in-flight entertainment and communications solutions to airlines.  

Colleague Cedric Rhoads, executive director at Panasonic Avionics, agrees, saying the RF environment inside a plane is uniquely inhospitable to RF signals. “It is not just the obvious, which is the reflective wave in the signals coming back to the transmitters and the receivers at different timing, which really messes things up and is very difficult to resolve. But it is also things like human bodies, carts, the seating — everything.”

That’s why Panasonic built a shielded lab to study the problem. Tests revealed the airline needs more wireless access points and power needs to be carefully controlled “because you don’t have enough channels within 2.4GHz or 5GHz that are licensed everywhere to be able to segment the plane effectively,” Bruner tells Runway Girl Network.

A plane holds a lot of people, all with independent communications needs, way beyond the density of users in an airport or using a hotspot, so “you can’t do the same frequency reuse things that you would do in the rest of the world,” explains Bruner. Bluetooth, which co-exists in the 2.4GHz spectrum, was never meant to be a high-density communication mechanism, complicating the issue.

Phitek, which makes noise cancelling headphones and chargers specifically for in-plane use, is looking at the problem, according to Runway Girl Network. Phitek Product and Marketing Director Chris van der Loo says, “You can only have a certain amount of connections in a single space before they start sticking on each other. So, what the technology will be is yet to be seen. I’m not sure if it will be Bluetooth.”

Wireless communication is evolving, with new protocols always on the horizon, according to van der Loo. “Obviously there are no new bands coming, but there are different ways to use the bands in smarter ways.”

Providers are looking at how to make pairing wireless headphones with passengers’ devices and the airlines entertainment system easy and secure. BAE Systems’ director of cabin programs Jared Shoemaker says his company tries to stay on top of what’s happening with WiFi spectrum, looking at where WAPs are going. “We are looking forward to moving into a world where there are many more channels available, ideally in the 5GHz spectrum, so that we can clear through any ceilings that are out there for the number of passengers that you can stream to at any given time.” 

November 14, 2016

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