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Wireless Avionics Intra-Communications Technology Not Slated for Takeoff Any Time Soon

27 November 2013

Airplane

By Cary Adickman and Deborah Broderson

Wireless avionics intra-communications (“WAIC”) technology holds the promise of a safer, more efficient international aviation fleet, but the slow pace of designating spectrum for the service and the possible need for the reallocation of additional spectrum may leave WAIC sitting on the tarmac until at least 2015. And absent broad international consensus, WAIC deployment may never get off the ground at all. 

The majority of wireless systems deployed in modern airplanes support either air-to-ground, or air-to-air communications or allow in-flight entertainment for passengers. WAIC networks, in contrast, exclusively connect radiocommunications devices in or on an aircraft to other such devices, which are often attached to engine, landing gear, and proximity sensors, brake or tire monitors, or other safety-related features. WAIC provides savings in aircraft weight and fuel efficiency, because it reduces the need for physical wiring and harnessing that serves the same purpose, and additionally promises operational efficiencies from the ability to obtain more data from aircraft surfaces during all phases of flight.

As autonomous wireless networks serving a large number of critical safety monitors, WAIC requires dedicated spectrum that can be available without interference around the world, to ensure that critical connectivity can be maintained regardless of a plane’s flight path. Given the complexity of international spectrum coordination, the process for allocating spectrum to support WAIC deployment is slow-moving. Every three to four years, members of the World Radiocommunication Conference (“WRC”) convene to review and, if necessary, revise the Radio Regulations, an international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum. The next WRC will be held in 2015 (“WRC-15”), and the allocation of WAIC spectrum is one of the agenda items teed up for discussion.   

The last WRC, held in 2012, proposed the possibility of deploying WAIC using the existing worldwide aeronautical mobile service, aeronautical mobile (route) service (“AM(R)S”)) or aeronautical radio navigation service spectrum allocations below 15.7 GHz, with the possibility of turning to spectrum above 15.7 GHz if necessary. Although each WRC consists of both domestic and international members, the United States has tended to have a strong influence over potential agenda items. The most recent draft proposal from the United States on the WRC-15 WAIC agenda item warns that due to anticipated bandwidth requirements, the current allocation of aeronautical services spectrum may not be sufficient to deploy WAIC systems and recommends additional studies prior to the convening of WRC-15.  

The International Telecommunications Union’s Radiocommunication Bureau (“ITU-R”), which coordinates the international use of radio spectrum, is currently evaluating potential spectrum allocations for WAIC and is anticipated to release a study on this topic by November 2013. If the ITU-R and other studies find that the proposed spectrum allocations are sufficient, WRC-15 is likely to vote on the new frequency allocation in November 2015. But this is hardly a green light for WAIC deployment because any new allocations must be ratified by all member states. If some countries fail to support the WAIC standard, airplanes relying on WAIC technology might either have to maintain redundant, non-WAIC systems while flying through this airspace, or avoid certain routes altogether.  If WRC-15 attendees cannot agree on revisions to the table of allocations, or an alternate spectrum allocation solution is not found, it could be some time until WAIC takes to the skies.  

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