Nokia is “ready for take-off” with its plans to bring affordable LTE to the skies, with the company stating that affordable broadband on aircraft could be the first step towards “connected planes”.

In an online presentation held today, Thorsten Robrecht, VP of advanced mobile network solutions, talked through some of the benefits of using an LTE solution based on the ground to provide connectivity in planes, over today’s existing satellite infrastructure.

Nokia has been developing its “LTE air-to-ground” for five years, and is now set for launch across Europe this year.

“The demand for on board connectivity is the biggest ask from customers, he said. “Very clearly, passengers are really expecting on board connectivity, and the ability to stay connected. They want the service they have all over the world, while moving in the air.”

Citing a study, he said only 13 per cent of non-US airspace has access to inflight connectivity, and only 6 per cent of that is suitable for video, which is where the demand will “continue to increase”.

Nokia’s solution is the first of its kind, he said, and has been developed by the vendor’s Bell Labs unit almost 55 years after the business developed a similar satellite solution.

LTE vs satellite
Breaking down the benefits, Robrecht said airplane connectivity based on LTE would be 8 times cheaper than satellite, while installation would be 5 times faster. Latency would be 6 times quicker and it would be 7 times lighter, when considering equipment weight, which would also be beneficial for fuel consumption.

The one major drawback was that LTE-based solutions are limited to land mass, while satellite covers both land and sea.

Nokia has been working with a range of partners across Europe to bring the solution to planes, which it described as an “adjacent technology” to satellite.

Breaking down the offering, Nokia will provide Wi-Fi on aircrafts using LTE eNode base stations, connecting two antennas on an aircraft to provide on board connectivity.

To cover the whole of the European airspace, roughly 300 base stations are required, which is “not necessarily a huge investment”.

“An airplane is like a moving phone,” he said. “The aircraft will have two antennas that point to the ground. If you basically make the connectivity to LTE on the ground, inside the airplane you have the same technology that you have now.”

“We are providing Wi-Fi into the cabin like you have today, but the key difference is how you connect the aircraft. Instead of going upwards to the sky and to the satellite you go downwards and connect to the LTE base station into the ground.”

While the company is starting with Europe, which is taking a leading position, Robrect said the “rest of the world is an open space” and it has plans to expand rollout in the future.

Connected planes
Jane Rygaard, Nokia’s advanced mobile network solutions head of marketing, added that the developments could eventually lead the market towards connected planes.

She said there was still some way to go to reach the level of cars, given the low latency required, but “broadband is certainly the first step towards this”.