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Qantas calls on the ACMA to protect inflight Wi-Fi from 5G services

Qantas has made a rare foray into the telecommunications regulatory arena and called on the Australian Communications and Media Authority to protect its inlight Wi-Fi services from potential interference from future 5G networks. 

Qantas provides satellite-powered Wi-Fi services to its domestic passengers in partnership with Viasat and NBN Co's Sky Muster satellite service using spectrum on the 28 GHz band. The ACMA has recently commenced a re-planning inquiry for 28 GHz, with a number of satellite players concerned about potential interference if parts of the band are opened up to other providers such as mobile operators. 

Qantas head of sustainability and industry affairs Moksha Watts told the ACMA that the airline will have fast and free satellite powered Wi-Fi enabled on 82 of its domestic leet of Boeing 737 and Airbus 330 aircraft by the end of 2019. Watts said more than 2 million passengers have used the service since launch and each day over 50% of passengers or 12,000 customers regularly use the service on all lights.  She also noted that Qantas has wider plans beyond passenger broadband, including services for maintenance. “For example, high speed Wi-Fi connectivity to the cockpit provides important real-time data to light operations and engineering on the ground and allows Qantas to innovate with engineering applications,” Watts said. 

In an options paper, the ACMA has made a number of proposals for using the 28 GHz band, all of them favourable to the satellite sector. However, there have been calls from mobile operators calling for the band to be shared for future 5G services.   

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association noted in its submission that the 28GHz band has been allocated in some major markets around the world for 5G wireless broadband, and some mobile network operators have launched services – resulting in a device and network equipment ecosystem in the 28 GHz band. Telstra and Optus have also urged the ACMA to leave open the option of future mobile participation in the band, particularly as operators increasingly adopt better sharing techniques. 

However, Qantas argued that the band should be dedicated to satellite services. “The 28 GHz spectrum is used by Qantas to provide satellite-powered Wi-Fi services to our domestic passengers from the moment the aircraft departs the gate to the time the aircraft arrives at its destination,” it said.

“Dedicating the 28 GHz spectrum to satellite . . .  provides Qantas with certainty to continue to offer Wi-Fi speeds up to 10 times faster than conventional on-board Wi-Fi from the most remote regions and airports to metropolitan areas in Australia. Further, as customer demand for our Wi-Fi service continues to increase, a dedicated satellite bandwidth will provide Qantas the ability to scale and innovate to meet future customer needs.” 

It also noted that in some of the options presented in the ACMA paper, there is a risk that prioritisation of 5G over other services would require Qantas to turn off the Wi-Fi service under 10,000 feet to avoid interference, leading to an intermittent and inferior Wi-Fi service. 

“This degree of unreliability and disruption to gate to gate Wi-Fi connectivity will signiicantly impact the customer experience of Qantas passengers and interrupt the availability of applications we use over Wi-Fi to improve customer care, aircraft performance and safety, such as real time weather information or disruption management information,” the airline said. Geoff Long, Commsday