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China Approves Trial of 5G Air-to-ground Communication, enabling In-flight Internet Access

May 15,2023

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has approved China Mobile's trial of 5G air-to-ground (5G-ATG) technology, which enables users to access the internet on planes, the ministry announced on Friday.

The 5G-ATG trial approval will further improve the spatial dimension of 5G network coverage, expand the industry application scenarios for 5G, and better meet the growing needs of air passengers to access the internet, said the MIIT.

According to the ministry, 5G-ATG, based on 5G public mobile communication technology, establishes a communication link between the ground and the aircraft cabin by setting up special base stations and beam-shaped antennas along the aircraft route in accordance with corresponding international and domestic regulations, so that passengers can access the internet through wireless LAN access in the cabin.

5G-ATG is one of the technological paths to achieving high-quality aviation internet, and also a new business application for 5G and other new technologies in the aviation internet field, said the MIIT.

The technology was not achievable during the 3G and 4G era. But 5G can support data transmission at a movement rate of more than 500 kilometers per hour, Ma Jihua, a veteran tech analyst, told the Global Times on Friday.

The average speed of a civil airliner is about 800-1,000 kilometers per hour.

Ma revealed that the current technology is said to be capable of tracking aircraft at a speed of up to 1,200 kilometers per hour.

"5G-ATG, simply put, launches the 5G base station signal to the sky, which means that passing aircraft can receive the signal at a height of 10,000 meters," said Ma.

Ma said that problems remain in the implementation of 5G-ATG, which means cooperation is needed between civil aviation departments and airlines.

Industry insiders said that there are different technical routes to in-flight internet connectivity, but 5G-ATG is clearly the easiest and lowest-cost option. The application of the technology will further promote the development of smart aviation.

It is estimated that the demand for in-flight data transmission is about 30 gigabytes per flight, and there will be more and more flight data under intelligent operation modes in the future, an industry insider told the Global Times on Friday.

If in-flight Internet access becomes one of the key factors for travelers choosing a flight and if airlines find a profitable business model, it won't take long to make internet access available on all aircraft, said Ma, adding that Air China's Airbus 350s might have been retrofitted to use 5G-ATG technology.

However, 5G-ATG technology can only be applied in continental areas at present, Ma noted, and internet access across oceans is not yet an option.

Under this background, 2023 Aviation Digital Operation Congress is scheduled to be held in Haikou City, Hainan Province from September 5th to 6th 2023. The theme is Digital Empowerment, Upgrade the Connectivity, gathering airlines, telecom operators, Web technology platform, satellite companies, system providers, etc. The congress will focus on satellite connectivity, ATG connectivity, integrated electronic flight book, digital management of operation and control, front and rear cabin expansion application, aircraft ground collaborative digital service and exploration of new cockpit digital technology and in-flight technology. Thus, to improve aircraft operation safety, efficiency and production organization capacity, and promote high-quality development of civil aviation.

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