One of the entries for radio spectrum in the dictionary describes the word as “the entire range of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation”. In this Concourse post, we’ll explain the basics behind radio spectrum, what it means for Gogo, and how it helps us bring our connectivity services to commercial and business aircraft.
Like the dictionary explains – spectrum is the entire range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic radiation. In plain English, and specific to our purposes today, spectrum describes the entire portion of what we more commonly refer to as the “airwaves”. Radio spectrum is the entire portion of the airwaves dedicated to wireless transmission of radio signals. This means that your AM and FM radio use a portion of spectrum, as well as your cellular phone, wireless baby monitor and Wi-Fi system. Spectrum is highly regulated, which ensures that your “pop hits” radio station won’t suddenly get taken over by a cellular operator, and that your Wi-Fi at home won’t drop your tablet connection when you press your garage door opener.
Worldwide, the basic use of radio spectrum is split up by the International Telecommunications Union, and in each country, the individual governing bodies split up the radio spectrum and allocate it. In the United States, this is of course done by our Federal Communications Commission. Because radio spectrum is a valuable commodity, the FCC has strict rules governing its use, ensuring that users of allocated frequencies don’t interfere with services on other radio frequencies. As you can see in the chart above, there is a lot of radio spectrum, along with thousands of allocations of this spectrum. For a full version of the chart, you can visit the source site.
With the global definitions of radio communication services (as defined by the International Telecommunications Union). there are a total of 40 different “services”, each dedicated to a very specific part of the spectrum. Examples of this include;
- Mobile services
- Fixed Satellite Services
- Ship movement Services
- Amateur services
- Aeronautical mobile-satellite services
Pieces of spectrum allow for a variety of purposes – mobile phone operators need large chunks of spectrum in order to offer their voice and phone services. In recent years, new data transmission standards (like 4G LTE) have required the purchase of large allocations of spectrum. As our mobile devices demand more and more bandwidth, the demand for spectrum also grows.
Because radio spectrum can be so valuable to a wireless company, most of the new blocks of spectrum are auctioned off. In the United States, these auctions are managed by the FCC. In 2006, 4 MHz of spectrum in the 850MHz band that was previously used by an in-flight phone service was put up for auction. The auction split this 4MHz of spectrum into two licenses – a 3MHz license and a 1 MHz license. The 3MHz license was granted to Gogo. The additional 1MHz was later purchased by us in 2013. If you zoom in on the chart linked above, you’ll find our allocated spectrum listed in the 850MHz range under “aeronautical mobile”.
This spectrum is used for Gogo’s ATG and ATG-4 networks. For those interested in the technology behind these technologies; we use EVDO Rev.A for our ATG network, and EVDO Rev.B for ATG-4. A bit more about the technology and equipment used on a plane can be found in this article.
Just how important is spectrum to a mobile operator? A recent FCC auction for new cellular spectrum netted just under $45 Billion with some of the most valuable individual spectrum licences (in New York) selling for over $2.5 million each. Without spectrum, a wireless service won’t be allowed to operate.
There are very few “unlicensed” pieces of spectrum that allow the general public to transmit on without a license. The few pieces out there are primarily used for products like the 2-way radios you’ll often see at a theme park. Of course, just because it is “unlicensed”, does not mean you can use any piece of equipment on it. Even on this “unlicensed” spectrum, you’ll need to use equipment that has been approved for use on that portion of radio spectrum. Take a look at the bottom of any piece of equipment in your home with a transmitter – you’ll see an FCC symbol on the bottom that shows the product has been tested and approved for use on the frequencies it is designed for.
In addition to our ATG and ATG-4 networks, we also rely on spectrum allocated to our satellite partners. Currently, our commercial aviation system are offered on SwiftBroadband (L-Band), Ku band and Ka band. Our business aviation division offers satellite services operating on SwiftBroadband (L-Band) and Iridium. The Gogo partners who operate these satellites must of course also ensure spectrum is allocated to their satellites on a global basis. In addition to this, Gogo must ensure any airborne equipment installed complies with FCC, FAA and other international regulations.
So – now you know a little about the basics behind spectrum, you’ll understand that allocated spectrum is probably one of the most valuable commodities owned by any wireless company. Without spectrum, we would not have our ATG and ATG-4 networks, and our satellite partners would not be able to offer us their services. The same applies to any company planning to use radio spectrum for their services – whether it involves TV, radio, phone or any other wireless standard.