My chat with Panasonic director of product marketing Cedric Rhoads about wireless IFE was fruitful indeed. Unfortunately, word count constraints prevented me from using all of his best quotes in my recent Flight piece concerning this subject.
So in classic note-dumping style, here is Part 2 and 3 from that conversation. Part 1 can be found here. (Note: the bolded text within the gray box specifically addresses Bluebox’s prior comments about Pansonic and Thales).
2) The challenges of wireless cited in the past by Boeing, Panasonic and Thales – have these been resolved?
“I think that some of the issues have been resolved. At the time that Boeing was making decisions regarding the 787, there was a lot of concern about the 802.11n technology’s specification not having yet been ratified by IEEE. There was no clearly defined standard due to lack of ratification, so there was still a lot of movement in the technology itself and as such, no clear supplier base. There was also concern that commitment to a specific variant in the absence of the ratified spec would likely create a lot of obsolescence issues. With the ratification of the 11n spec, this challenge has been overcome.”
“One of the other things we learned during the 787 wireless IFE project was that, ultimately, the weight savings in moving to a wireless distribution architecture was not realized as originally envisioned. The concern for us was that the value of wireless was not there and it represented a very big trade-off in bandwidth, and thus capability.”
“The two other significant challenges that affected wireless at the time still remain. Mr. Stuart’s comment that we weren’t ‘up to the challenge’ (of wireless IFE) was unfortunate; we did it and it worked; it was Boeing that ultimately decided against it because of other factors.”
“One of the challenges was the issue of frequency spectrum allocation within the different countries where a wireless IFE system would be expected to operate in an airline environment. Unlike using a fixed Wi-Fi router in your home or office, an aircraft may have to operate in a country that does not have the spectrum to effectively operate a wireless-based IFE system. At the time, there were insufficient 802.11 channels available in several countries (e.g., China) to ensure a fully functional system in all intended operational geographies.”
“In the 787 wireless IFE design there was insufficient 802.11 spectrum to give us what we needed to do a wireless network serving 250 passengers with centrally stored, on-demand content on dedicated wireless channels. Across the 787 type cabin, and this was roughly in the range of about 250 seats, we had to reuse spectrum from the front to the rear of the aircraft to ensure sufficient on-demand bandwidth. The consequence of this was that very specific, custom antennas were required to mitigate interference in the re-used channels that had to operate simultaneously within the same airframe.”
“As I understand it, the Bluebox solution differs in one fundamental regard; they are providing local storage on the user’s device, from which the user will access their desired content. At the time of the 787 Wireless IFE study, content was served wirelessly from head-end-based storage. With local content storage, you solve the bandwidth challenges of serving wireless on-demand content, but you create another challenge: Content synchronization (storage) across all of the end-user devices each time the content is updated. The challenge, of course, is the speed at which you can update the content. The 802.11n technology is the most capable wireless technology today for use in a cabin environment, and yet moving a terabyte of content across 250 seats–essentially 250 terabytes of content migration–is going to take a significant amount of time. This creates a natural limitation in the amount of content you can host when using a wireless distribution methodology. Further, the cost and adaptability (to in-seat devices) of large-capacity hard-drives is a difficult challenge; typically, you must compromise on the size of these drives (vs. distributed system architectures.)”
“That means that customers who select local-storage systems are going to have to accept this trade-off in that they will not be able to carry the same amount of content. You must decide either a) less content, or b) a longer period where devices are not synchronized.”
3) Does Panasonic have any sort of timeline for bringing something to market (especially in light of competition from Bluebox and no doubt others)?
“Panasonic focuses onboth the OEM requirements and our customer’s requirements. We already possess a variety of solutions and we continue to adapt or innovate to meet the changing demands of the market. We’re working closely with Airbus and our customers on the A350 design and will provide a robust product line for this market. I’m not at liberty to disclose the specifics of schedule or technology at this time.”