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China set to launch world's first in-flight 5G

China Telecom and ZTE are building out systems for passenger airlines that could replace satellite technology.

Robert Clark

May 17, 2021

2 Min Read
China set to launch world's first in-flight 5G

China looks set to notch up another 5G first – in-flight connectivity.

Both China Telecom and ZTE are well advanced in building out 5G-based air-to-ground (ATG) communications platforms for passenger airlines. China Telecom is running pilots on three domestic routes out of Beijing and is expected to offer commercial service in the second half of the year.

At least two major domestic airlines are close to deployment, Liu Weiwei, the head of ZTE's ATG product line, said last week. 5G ATG is expected to replace satellite communications systems for in-flight connectivity over landmasses, promising much greater throughput and lower latency at a lower cost. It uses a dedicated terrestrial tower network to connect to a belly-mounted antenna on aircraft.

Liu says each 5G ground tower has coverage of up to 300km, with fewer than 1,000 required to provide nationwide coverage across China.

ZTE's newly released 5G ATG solution is also a world first, capable of supporting aircraft traveling at 1,200 kilometers per hour. Liu says the solution includes the ground base station, core network and airborne CPE, with the airborne antenna to be supplied by a partner.

China Telecom has established a dedicated subsidiary, Tianyi Zhihang, that will operate its network, providing ATG solutions and airborne equipment and integration into the China Telecom cloud.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

It will run on both civil aviation and telecom spectrum, with up to 200Mbit/s in bandwidth for each aircraft, China's C114 website reported.

In the US, in-flight connectivity specialist Gogo, recently acquired by Intelsat, is aiming to get its 5G service up and running in 2022. This activity in the civil aviation vertical once again underlines the potential for 5G to open up broad new segments.

In a signal of intent, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has issued a roadmap that puts 5G at the heart of the aviation industry, including both in-flight connectivity and industry logistics.

At a press conference last Friday, Zhang Ruiqing, deputy director of the Air Traffic Control Office, said current connectivity was too slow and limited. He said the initial priorities in the plan are to carry out upgrades from LTE to 5G and to enhance network coverage and performance. It also envisages integration with new high-throughput satellites. He said that over the next decade the goal will be to build a smart network infrastructure that combines public and private uses and can support air traffic control, airports and airlines.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Robert Clark

Contributing Editor, Special to Light Reading

Robert Clark is an independent technology editor and researcher based in Hong Kong. In addition to contributing to Light Reading, he also has his own blog,  Electric Speech (http://www.electricspeech.com). 

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