In a recent report on in-flight connectivity in China, Valour Consultancy considers whether a 5G air-to-ground network might prove a more popular solution than satellite infrastructure in Chinese airspace.

In-flight connectivity (IFC) companies have succeeded in drafting agreements with Chinese government authorities for satellite-supplied IFC services in Chinese airspace. But it’s possible that a high-capacity, high-speed 5G air-to-ground (ATG) infrastructure will be key to offering connectivity to a greater number of passengers in China, according to a report by Valour Consultancy.

Valour’s IFC Tracker shows 168 (5%) of aircraft registered to airlines in mainland China offered in-flight connectivity services as of the end of March 2019; all of them wide-body aircraft.

“Much of the limited IFC-related activity to date has been around bringing satellite-based solutions to market, including recent tie-ups between Viasat and China Satcom, and Honeywell and local service provider Air Esurfing. Furthermore, Panasonic Avionics’ Ku-band solution, which is installed on almost every Chinese aircraft equipped with IFC today, is expected to remain relevant in the coming years thanks to the company’s investment in the APSTAR 6D HTS satellite,” said William Calvert, research analyst at Valour Consultancy. “But it seems increasingly likely that airlines in Mainland China will be presented with an alternative to satellite-based IFC in the form of China Mobile’s proposed 5G air-to-ground network.”

“Airlines in Mainland China will be presented with an alternative to satellite-based IFC in the form of China Mobile’s proposed 5G air-to-ground network.” – William Calvert, Valour Consultancy

China is a natural fit for an ATG network, Calvert explained, because of its significant land mass and the volume of traffic operating within its borders. “The broader benefits of ATG over satellite-based solutions, specifically reduced downtime and installation costs, would no doubt appeal to those Tier 2 and 3 airlines unlikely to install a Ku- or Ka-band solution,” Calvert said.

Competing for this growth market are companies like Beijing Weibang Yuanhang Wireless Technology Co., Ltd (Weibang) and China Telecom Satellite, which have tested small-scale networks in recent years. China Telecom Satellite is thought to have 32 active towers, which could support an ATG network, pending regulatory approval.

“In 2018, China Mobile joined this list, successfully trialing a 4G LTE network consisting of 52 ground base stations positioned across a number of high traffic routes. Now, the mobile network operator (MNO) is understood to be working toward launching a full blown 5G ATG network, which will leverage a large chunk of spectrum in the 4.8-4.9 GHz band,” Calvert said.

China Mobile’s entry into the market is significant because of its large customer base (931 million mobile subscribers as of March of this year). It is also government-owned, which might help speed up the regulatory approvals process. The Chinese aviation regulator CAAC has backed the prospect by taking part in the initial 4G LTE trial in 2018 and publishing a paper with ICAO in 2018 that specifically mentions the China Mobile program.

Last year, China Mobile partnered with Airbus China Innovation Center (ACIC) to develop in-flight Wi-Fi services. “The cooperation will develop an end-to-end solution and create new in-flight high-speed connectivity, leveraging the favorable policy on the use of portable electronic devices on board and the upcoming 5G technology,” said Luo Gang, CEO of Airbus China Innovation Center.

Huawei Technologies is also partnering with ACIC to research in-flight connectivity and Internet of Things (IoT) applications in the aircraft cabin.

There are some hurdles to overcome, including the fact that the potential ATG program still lacks the backing of any of the country’s major airlines. “Whilst there appears to be genuine interest from tier one airlines, a formal decision will likely require proof of service quality. This will understandably take time,” Calvert said.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology will also need to be satisfied that there is no potential frequency interference with sovereign military and space applications. These hurdles, and others, may delay the launch of ATG connectivity in China until 2022/23, Valour Consultancy predicts. Once available, though, the installed base of ATG in mainland China could reach 1,300 aircraft by the end of 2028.