I find myself swimming in a sea of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFE&C) and interiors news this morning. And when that happens, there is only one solution - a news and rumour roundup! Let's herd um in boys. Yeehaw! I'll stop that now.
Cingular Wireless has submitted a patent application that is crying out for attention. The company says it has invented "a new short messaging method and system for airborne passengers".
The air-to-ground telecommunications system allows callers to store messages on an aircraft data server when sufficient radio-frequency (RF) bandwidth is unavailable for transmitting a call. Callers can leave voice, fax, e-mail or other data messages. The messages are then stored on the aircraft until sufficient bandwidth becomes available for transmission to the ground.
The invention can be used on airborne platforms such as airplanes, helicopters and space vehicles. Callers would place and receive calls using aircraft telephone or terminal units, says Cingular Wireless. Does this mean Cingular Wireless intends to get in on the in-flight connectivity game?
The trial on an Airbus A320 is expected to last approximately one month. A firm date for launch will be forthcoming.
Asked if US Airways intends to trial another system, as hinted by CEO Doug Parker last year, the carrier says: "On other fronts we continue to keep options open but nothing to pass along yet." Excellent we'll stay on top of this. In other news...
AirTran will pick an IFE system shortly. Key pars from Airline Business' new profile of AirTran chief exec Bob Fornaro:
But it is AirTran's identity in the market long-term that Fornaro knows will be his challenge once it gets past this downturn. For instance, the carrier has long had a business-class section on every aircraft. It also has on-board entertainment in the form of satellite radio with free earphones at every seat.
For years, former AirTran chief Joe Leonard bragged abut the XM Satellite Radio as a differentiator, but now with JetBlue, Frontier, Virgin America and others with their on-board television, movies and other advanced in-flight entertainment, Fornaro says: "We'll have to look at something more. The radio is just not enough. We're talking to various [IFE] companies and we should have a decision in a few months".
AirTran has not said if it is looking into connectivity, but this would make a lot of sense since fellow Atlanta-hubbed carrier Delta is going fleet-wide with Gogo.
Meanwhile, ViaSat and its partner KVH Industries are progressing with their plan to provide Ku-band-based connectivity around the globe. I had a good chat with ViaSat strategy director Bill Sullivan yesterday. Check out my full article here. But here is some important related text.
Former Connexion by Boeing customer Lufthansa has not confirmed its Internet partners. But sources say a grouping comprised of T-Mobile, ViaSat, antenna maker AeroSat and others are working with the carrier to reinstate in-flight Internet on overseas flights..
Sullivan does not confirm if ViaSat, a former supplier to Connexion, is involved. "All I can really say is we are really well positioned to play a role in that because we understand the Connexion by Boeing system really well. And we have networks in place that can support them pretty much immediately."
Sullivan also went on record about ViaSat's objections to rival Row 44's application to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
"ViaSat doesn't believe Row 44 has any regulatory approval to proceed with trials," he told me. "We are not happy about slowing down any Southwest or Alaska trials. We mean no harm to Row 44 at all. We are saying that all applicants for AMSS services over fixed satellite service (FSS) systems need to follow the same rules that the rest of us have been following and go through the same process."
Further emphasizing the point, ViaSat tabled another filing to the FCC yesterday. Check it out at the following link. ViaSat Ex Parte Letter (Jan 22 2009).pdf
Hang tight now there while I tear into a package of Le Petit Ecolier biscuits for a bit of nourishment.
Now, where was I? Ah yes, Row 44. The California-based company has also been busy with the FCC, amending its AMSS system application to provide supplemental letters from FSS geostationary satellite operators Intelsat and SES Americom.
And in a new letter to the FCC it says it believes its request for special temporary authority it requested in July 2008 "should be processed and granted immediately". As previously reported, Row 44 wants to launch those trials on Alaska and Southwest Boeing 737s this month.
We could go back and forth all day like this - lord knows you love FCC filings - but we've got other horses to ride.
One particularly pretty stallion is Swiss' new first class product. Starting this spring, when Swiss begins replacing its current Airbus A330-200s with new A330-300s, first class passengers will get a seat that can be reclined at the touch of a button into a totally lie-fat bed. Lord, doesn't this look nice.
Further extras include a 23-inch - currently the world's biggest - in-flight entertainment screen, and generous work surfaces and storage facilities.
How about a picture love?
Remember AeroSat's plan to create an aircraft-to-aircraft relay communications system that is independent of satellite transmissions? The company has been working on this strategy for quite some time. Check out this company backgrounder. While I haven't yet talked to AeroSat about this, one industry insider was willing to give me his first-blush assessment of the plan. File this under "educated speculation".
If for example you had two aircraft that were both flying at 43,000ft, they would have a line of sight view to each other up to 500 miles away. If one aircraft was at 35,000ft and the other at 10,000ft, you can still see each other at a distance of 350 miles.
So, it won't take that many networked aircraft to cover a pretty big area.
When aircraft A flies within communications range of a ground site, it then has connectivity - just like in the Aircell network. The twist is that this aircraft then advertises to the other aircraft within radio range that it can see the ground site. These aircraft then pass their traffic to aircraft A, and in turn advertise to other aircraft that they can forward traffic to aircraft A. So aircraft C passes traffic to aircraft B, who passes it to aircraft A, who passes it to the ground station.
Basically a big flying Internet!
Getting access to frequencies around the world would be one of the hurdles. The antenna/radio design to support such a system wouldn't be hard but still takes time. Then there's the whole flying network. You'd need cooperative agreements between enough aircraft/carriers to make sure that you have a seamless path. Additionally, for example, flight delays due to weather on the East Coast could cause a gap in the spacing of aircraft which might result in a whole large enough to disrupt service. The network could be self healing though, so as long as any equipped aircraft wanders into the gap, communications could resume - even if it wasn't the scheduled aircraft expected to be in that area at that time.
The question remains, however: If the FCC auctioned two specific licenses (Aircell and LiveTV) for exclusive ATG communications to aircraft, how can other "ATG" approaches also be licensed/allowed for the same application?