Leading in-flight Internet provider Aircell provides roadmap for future speeds: Aircell currently relies in its commercial aviation deployment on the CDMA standard EVDO Rev. A, nearly identical to the ground cellular tech used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel for their 3G CDMA networks. The flavor Aircell employs works over a narrow set of frequencies that the firm won a license to at auction a few years ago. Aircell can routinely bring a couple of Mbps downstream (from the Internet into the aircraft) per plane, and push hundreds of Kbps back up.
As usage increases, which is the necessity for the capital cost of running such a business, so, too, does the requirement for more bandwidth. Aircell's plan is to migrate to the backwards-compatible EVDO Rev. B, which has substantially greater efficiency for the same spectrum. This will be combined with what Aircell describes as "dual modem" and "directional antenna." Aircell says this will provide four times its current bandwidth. While I don't have guidance from the company, "dual modem" likely refers to using polarization of signals to allow frequency reuse over space. Directional antennas are certainly a refinement on its current air-to-ground antenna approach that reduces the signal loss involved.
In previous conversations with Aircell, the firm discussed its interest in LTE (Long Term Evolution), the fourth-generation standard being employed by Verizon Wireless and AT&T in the US, and many carriers worldwide, to enhance wireless broadband speeds by several factors. EVDO Rev. B is a better short-term choice because of its backwards compatibility. Future EVDO revisions may not be in the cards because of the world's shift from Qualcomm's CDMA roadmap (its in-house 4G standard has been abandoned). But the Rev. B version may have enough efficiency for the available bandwidth that the LTE switch isn't cost effective for the gain.
Aircell also discussed its future satellite backhaul plans. Aircell has spoken in the past about using Ku-band satellites, the sectorized geostationary birds that once powered Connexion, and now provide service to Row 44 and Panasonic—as well as deliver satellite TV to the US among many other uses. Aircell announced plans to use Ka-band satellites, a different frequency range and class, to deliver backhaul to the US in 2013 and worldwide by 2015. Aircell currently cannot offer service on most overwater routes, and would likely also have areas of missing coverage as it expands in the western hemisphere to pass over less-populated regions. In the interim, Aircell will build Ku-band service for airlines flying outside North America.
The reason Aircell discloses this kind of information publicly isn't for the benefits of the industry or passengers (or competitors). It's to make sure the market is absolutely clear on the fact that the only company in the world with a substantial number of planes equipped with in-flight broadband has a clear plan for how it's going to retain its position. Its airline partners have long known about this. This is posturing. And I love it, because it's full of rich, creamy technological goodness.