To view this page ensure that Adobe Flash Player version
11.1.0 or greater is installed.
aloft? by Dick Hobbs
T he UK
communications regulator Ofcom
has issued a consultation
document on the
prospects for a technology called
Earth Stations on Mobile Platforms,
or ESOMPs. My first response to the
consultation is that they should get a
An ESOMP is a small communications
device which is attached to a mobile
platform: a train, a plane, a ship or a
coach. It communicates with a service
provider through a fixed earth station,
either direct or via a satellite (if the
plane or ship is in mid-ocean).
The aim is to provide high speed
internet to the vehicle. If you have tried
the existing internet connections some
airlines and train companies offer,
you will know that it tends to be slow
and is really only suitable for email.
With ESOMP there should be enough
capacity for all, at fast enough speeds
for even streaming content.
Now the first thing that interests me
about this is that it calls for some very
clever technology. As is the way with
very high frequency radio signals –
the plan is to use frequencies around
20GHz in one direction, 30GHz in the
other – you need to point the antenna
pretty much straight at the ground
station or satellite.
That is reasonable enough if you are
unfolding a Ka-band dish and bolting
it to a hotel balcony. It is a bit harder
on a train moving at 300km/hour or a
plane moving at 900km/hour. So the
devices on the mobile platform will
need to have sophisticated tracking
systems, which means they are
going to be a bit delicate and almost
certainly quite expensive.
Bundle that with the data charges –
and this is a new service the carriers
will feel free to ask silly money for. It
will be an additional operating expense
114 | TV-BAY MAGAZINE: ISSUE 81 SEPTEMBER 2013
for the train company, airline or whatever, which of course they will want to
At the moment that splendid airline Norwegian has free Wi-Fi for all passengers
on most of its planes. Virgin Trains offers it free in first class but charges for
those in steerage. Train designers are looking at using the frames of advertising
placards in each carriage as the Wi-Fi aerial, so they can control the service by
area. The real question, though, is what will you do with faster internet access on a
plane? When the idea of telephones on board planes was first mooted, in 2009,
a survey (admittedly by the Daily Telegraph) found 85% of people threatening to
boycott airlines which offered in-flight phones.
In 2011 a woman reportedly spoke on her phone for 16 hours non-stop, on an
Amtrak train between Oakland, California and Salem, Oregon (where she was
arrested for disorderly conduct). Yes, she was in the quiet car. Yes, I would have
joined in the lynch mob.
It is hard to be starved of diversions on a modern plane. Emirates, for instance,
claims 1500 channels of television entertainment. In the last few months I have
endured eight long-haul flights on Emirates and can confirm I was not once
bored. With that sort of choice, what could you possibly want to stream from iPlayer
or YouTube? Especially as the built-in entertainment system is free and you are
almost certainly going to have to pay for fast broadband.
You could use it for Skype, I suppose, but would you really need to make a
video call? Once you’ve done the “I’m on the plane” thing, there is not a lot to
see. Except how uncomfortable you are, and how uncomfortable the people
sitting next to you are at you shouting “you’ve gone all dalek again”.
The people – usually junior PR girls – who used to be surgically attached to their
Blackberries might want to feel they are so busy they have to be in touch all the
time. They could use the bandwidth to send press releases and compare the
dull screen shots that make editors scream in despair.
The first time I flew on Norwegian I opened the laptop and posted on Facebook
that I was at 36,000 feet above the North Sea. Then I shut the laptop and went
back to reading my book. Is this going to be the problem? Is this a technology
which is looking for an application? An answer to a question no-one asked?
Regular readers will know I love innovation. I am in huge awe of people who
invent things, who find clever solutions to technical challenges. But we do
have to think about how real those challenges are, whether they are “wants” or
“needs”. For many of us, the next time we get on a plane will be for the short hop to
Amsterdam and IBC. We can probably live without connectivity on such a short
flight. But we should take our innovation caution with us as we go around the
exhibition or listen to the cutting edge descriptions in the technical papers.
Is this whizzy new gizmo the answer to all our prayers? Or is it just an engineer’s
pet project? Is it something that will change our industry, and our consumers
lives, for the better? Or is it, like ESOMP, something that makes us say “yes,