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30 November 2011—Since 2008, frequent fliers have relished the luxury of on-board Internet connections. Service today relies on a fixed antenna that picks up signals from a nationwide network of cell towers. But that method offers low bandwidth at sometimes ridiculous prices. New antennas based on metamaterials, though, may soon rescue Web-addicted travelers from expensive connections in the air and elsewhere, and a group at the patent-licensing firm Intellectual Ventures (IV) thinks that it can implement the new technology by 2014.

Ideally, airlines would be able to direct dynamic antennas straight up at satellites, which is possible in one of two ways: mechanically, with a gimbal that points a dish antenna to the right part of the sky, or with a phased array, a complicated setup that electronically directs a beam by pulsing individual elements of an array in precise patterns. But mechanical gimbals are not exactly aerodynamic—one example is that massive protuberance on the nose of Predator drones. And the many phase shifters needed for phased arrays make them extremely expensive—about US $1 million a pop.

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How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

Remember the 5G-airport controversy? Here’s how such disputes play out

11 min read
This photo shows a man in the basket of a cherry picker working on an antenna as an airliner passes overhead.

The airline and cellular-phone industries have been at loggerheads over the possibility that 5G transmissions from antennas such as this one, located at Los Angeles International Airport, could interfere with the radar altimeters used in aircraft.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Blue

You’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that new 5G services from AT&T and Verizon might interfere with the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. Not true, said AT&T and Verizon, with the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also created a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by point-to-point microwave systems to carry safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

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