Boats and planes to join the superfast lane

21 January 2014

Ipad on planePassengers on boats, planes and other vehicles could enjoy superfast broadband speeds when travelling in the UK, following a decision today by Ofcom.

The decision will mean that airlines and other transport operators could in future use satellite-based technology to offer customers broadband speeds up to 10-times faster than they currently experience. The technology also provides an alternative means of connection on trains and coaches.

This would be achieved using ‘earth stations’ – devices which, when mounted on moving vehicles, can provide internet to passengers by connecting to a ‘geostationary’ satellite. Ofcom has today announced that it will authorise the use of earth stations on vehicles.

How the technology will work

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 spectrum for their use. This will provide a considerable amount of data capacity.

Recent advances in technology have improved the effectiveness of earth stations. Newer antennas are capable of maintaining very 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.

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

“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.

Next steps

Ofcom expects to be able to accept applications to license ship-mounted earth stations by February 2014, 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 of 2014. The first commercial deployments of the technology on vehicles in the UK are likely to begin later this year.

Ofcom is also working with international telecoms authorities to promote the use of earth station technology globally.

Read the statement.