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The burgeoning demand for in-flight connectivity

A universal hunger for staying connected at all times, is driving innovation in on-board connectivity, as satellite operators and service providers come up with affordable solutions.

A universal hunger for staying connected at all times, is driving innovation in on-board  connectivity, as satellite operators and service providers come up with affordable solutions. Airlines are queuing up knowing passengers will expect high-levels of connectivity as the norm.

In-flight entertainment (IFE) now has a ‘C’ that could stand for communications or  connectivity. In the couple of years that airlines have deployed IFEC solutions, passengers have not complained. Ian Dawkins CEO of OnAir, an in-flight connectivity provider, commenting on feedback for his service says: “Our experience is that passengers making voice-calls during flight are courteous to other passengers and in fact due to the ambient noise within an aircraft cabin you’re really not overheard whilst making calls.”

With more than a dozen airlines as clients, Ian Dawkins has an insight or two about in-flight connectivity. However, courteous passengers or not, the prospect of having silence zones on planes is increasingly sounding realistic as more airlines retrofit or linefit their fleet with the latest in on-board connectivity.

GCC-based airlines showing the way

Over the past couple of years, Oman Air, Gulf Air, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have opted for in-flight connectivity of varying degrees. Commenting on the trend, Dawkins says, “Middle East airlines are often pioneers in cabin services, which has meant they have been early adopters of new technology, including in-flight connectivity. In itself, this has driven demand for more airlines in the region to  adopt the service. In addition, many Middle East airlines have recently updated their fleets, providing the opportunity to linefit the relevant equipment.”

Taking in-flight connectivity to a whole new level, in 2011, Gulf Air, the national carrier of Bahrain, took delivery of its first A330-200 aircraft retrofitted with Panasonic Avionics Corporation’s Global Communications Suite that offers passengers on-board broadband connectivity to access internet, mobile phone services and a global, live television service onboard.The carrier signed up for the Ku-band satellite-based solution for its entire fleet.

SatellitePro asked Gulf Air CEO, Samer Al Majali, about the technical and logistical challenges of a retrofit. He said: “Bearing in mind that Gulf Air was the first airline in the world to offer full on-board connectivity in October 2011 – delivering broadband internet access, GSM phone service and live television content using Panasonic’s Global Communications Suite – we did face some technical and logistical challenges, but these have been fixed since.

“The first aircraft we retrofitted was challenging simply in that it was the first retrofit of any kind! Gulf Air, Panasonic and other vendors worked closely to test and implement each stage of the retrofitting process.” Just a year ago, Dawkins of OnAir, had to convince airlines about the importance of in-flight connectivity. Today, the airlines are approaching him underlining the seismic shift in airlines’ policy towards in-flight connectivity.

Clearly a differentiator, passengers reportedly select airlines based on the connectivity they offer prompting this rapid change of heart among airlines. The Swiss-based company and a joint venture by Airbus/SITA, OnAir, has completed its first full year of availability for its GSM-service (voice, SMS and mobile data) and in-flight internet access.

Crucial partnerships among service providers

Partnership with Inmarsat has been crucial as OnAir CEO Ian Dawkins embarked on his plan to offer inflight connectivity. He says: “OnAir has been working with Inmarsat for many years, and indeed was the first SwiftBroadband Distribution Partner. We are also one of only two distribution partners for Global Xpress, Inmarsat’s Ka-band solution, which will be launched in 2013. One of the key reasons for working with Inmarsat is because SwiftBroadband – and Global Xpress will be the same – provides a consistent and the only global service. That means passengers have the same services wherever they are in the world.”

Giving us an insight into what must be a complex and layered set of relationships, Dawkins says, “Aside from the satellite link, we need roaming agreements with as many mobile phone network operators as possible, as well as regulatory authorisations to operate our services in countries’ airspace. Seamless connections for passengers is largely dependent on geographical reach and in respect of which OnAir’s expertise in regulatory affairs has secured authorisations from 77 national aviation and telecommunications authorities.

Moreover, OnAir has concluded roaming agreements with mobile phone operators covering 2.2 billion GSM users, around two thirds of the total GSM users in the world. That means we can cover 95% of flight times on our customers’ routes.” For in-flight connectivity to be possible, it is necessary to locate both Wi-Fi access points and cellphone picocell base-stations on board the aircraft. The backhaul can then be provided by a satellite link.

With a reported 11,000 aircraft relying on global in-flight connectivity from Inmarsat, the mobile satellite services provider is one of the most widely used operators in this sector.

With SwiftBroadband, Inmarsat’s flexible IP connectivity, high-quality voice and data communications is delivered through a single antenna to the whole aircraft, servicing cockpit, cabin and operational applications.

For Inmarsat, the growth in the sector has been nothing short of astounding. “From a relatively small three per cent in 2006, this sector has grown to 13% in terms of revenue for Inmarsat,” revealed Helene Bazzi, head of regional development, EMEA. She added: “It is one of the fastest growing sectors for Inmarsat. On our part, we ensure global coverage with Inmarsat’s three global constellations of 11 satellites flying in geosynchronous orbit 37,786 kms (22,240 statute miles) above the Earth.”

From offering the crew real-time weather reports, engine monitoring capabilities and access to passenger databases, among other benefits, airlines can fine-tune customer care including accessing vital telemedicine in case of a medical emergency. And it all takes a fraction of a second as the GSM signals from a passenger’s GSM cellphone for instance, are transcoded using Internet Protocol – these IP packets are sent from the plane to the ground via satellite and then turned back to GSM signals and sent to the public network.

The two key drives of innovation are bandwidth access and affordability. With more than 35% of the cost of air tickets being accounted for by fuel, weight is a key issue. The hardware for OnAir’s service for instance weighs little more than 75 kilograms. On the question of affordability, Gulf Air’s Majali says: “Our IFE service is extremely affordable. Dividing our comprehensive IFE offering, the live TV element is free of charge in addition to the vast range of movies, music, games etc. that are already part of the in-flight system on-board we offer.

The other two elements, internet and telephony, will attract normal international roaming charges as charged by service providers with whom we have made agreements. The charges will appear on telephone bills as if they were roaming charges. The airplane is like a virtual country, so the charges will be in-line with international roaming. For the internet, the charging scheme is somewhere in the region of $15 for one hour, and less than $30 for 24-hour unlimited usage.”

Dawkins concurs, saying that voice calls are priced at no more than standard international roaming rates with billing directly through the customer’s own cellphone provider that is becoming a key service differentiator for carriers looking for new ways to attract and retain highyield passengers.

Smoothness of service

According to OnAir, the performance of the service generally has been very reliable in the first year. There have been a few teething problems involving interfaces with the satellite communication or in-flight entertainment systems, as has often been the case with new cabin systems. What should be music to the ears of satellite operators is that the twin issues of interference and latency are not hampering connectivity, says Majali. “Passenger usage and feedback thus far has been very promising with Gulf Air passengers embracing our in-flight entertainment’s ease of use and flexibility. Live TV has been the most popular option thus far and in terms of interference and latency we can confidently say that all our transmission is smooth, with no delay.”

Economies of scale

Tackling the delicate topic of pricing and the impact on satellite operators, Dawkins says, “As is the case when purchasing anything, the more you buy, the better the deal. However, the converse is also true and since the commercial air transport market is a relatively small one for the satellite providers, the airlines that have been early adopters have been working with OnAir and Inmarsat to develop the right passenger pricing models. They have been happy to do so, because passenger connectivity has been a differentiator, enabling them to take market share.

“As more and more airlines provide passenger connectivity, and do so on a fleet-wide basis, the prices have been coming down, since this is a volume business. New satellite technology has also enabled lower pricing across both SwitftBroadband (SBB) and Global Xpress (GX).”

The Ka-Band promise

Shopping for in-flight connectivity solutions has not been easy for airlines, given the  questions raised about the sustainability of the technology over the longterm. Majali of Gulf Air says: “We are one of the first airlines in the world to offer live TV over the land and international waters using Ku-band satellite technology, and to offer this range of services (telephony, broadband and live TV) across continents on a global basis. In addition, our system is upgradable. It can be modified to handle future services and faster transmission speeds.” OnAir is offering passengers voice, email, text services  and internet access, on flights across four continents by using SwiftBroadband Inmarsat L-band technology.

To be launched in 2013,  Inmarsat’s Global Xpress – the Ka-Band broadband network will offer downlink speeds of up to 50Mbps. A major question hovering over the connectivity  juggernaut for airlines that have not yet committed is whether to choose L-band, Kuband, or Ka-band. Ka-band, according to expert opinion, presents challenges including signal deterioration in heavy rain when compared with transmissions in the more traditional C-, Ku- and L-band frequencies. But it has the advantage of being much less used than the other frequencies, permitting operators to design satellites with throughputs that are many times what conventional satellites can offer.

On the issue of Ka-band services, Dawkins is quoted as saying that Ka-band/L-band swapping during flight will be available ‘out-of-the-box’ – from one service provider – as Inmarsat will provide a simple global network of L-band (SBB) and Ka-band satellites. In a comment to the press, he says: “If airlines want to upgrade hardware ‘early’, it can be installed in advance on an aircraft during build (or retrofit) and then go ‘live’ on day one of the Ka-band satellite operation.”

It is Dawkins’ belief that there will be an ongoing market for L-band services for at least the next three to five years as currently only about 10% of L-band capacity is being used. OnAir’s market research from a first full year of operations, which ended in April 2011, indicated that consumer use of the connectivity available mirrors that of smart phone roaming use on the ground, in that they are generally not downloading large amounts of data to access, for example, video streaming.

The hesitation demonstrated by some airlines to invest in an in-flight solution today as they wait for something with still higher bandwidth and potentially lower costs, is understandable but misplaced. Given the growing need for connectivity among passengers of all classes, these airlines will risk a drop in market share and customer satisfaction by not deploying an in-flight broadband solution while their rivals do. In the delicate balance between broadband technology, cost and sustainability, airlines have to join the in-flight bandwagon sooner rather than later.