Wireless IFE back in the fray

Just because Boeing opted against wireless IFE solutions for its 787 doesn’t mean airframers are not interested in making that sort of architecture available.

Take Airbus, for example. “In combination with our approach to connectivity we continue to study and research wireless IFE with industry players that have complementary offers to Airbus products in the value chain,” Airbus Operations vice-president cabin design office, Jonathan Norris reveals.

“Whether you use portable, semi-embedded or fully embedded devices, if you have a ‘connected aircraft’ – and want to upload today’s news, for instance – you’ve got a potential way of distributing that content throughout the aircraft.”

There are a number of challenges with wireless IFE, such as identifying the location of a particular handheld PED or semi-embedded device. “You need to be able to tell the system that ‘that film goes to that seat’. We believe that we can overcome those challenges,” says Norris.

A350.gifWell now, that’s interesting, especially since Airbus is deciding what technology makes sense for offerability on its A350 (last year it commissioned Bluebox Avionics to provide a wireless IFE system for inclusion in the A380 demo mock-up in Hamburg).

But note Norris’ comment – wireless IFE is being studied “in combination with our approach to connectivity”. For those who haven’t been paying attention as to what that approach entails, read on.

Says Norris:

“…our philosophy is to separate the connectivity system (Wi-Fi and/or GSM) from the choice of IFE system. We believe that the connectivity infrastructure should become part of the ‘backbone’ of the aircraft enabling a wider range of IFE and connectivity functionality than is available today to our customers.

“This separation would give our airline customers the option to choose between embedded ‘classical’ IFE systems, semi-embedded or fully portable IFE systems or even rely solely on passengers’ own Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) to bring entertainment content onto the aircraft.

“We believe that the customer should be free to put connectivity on the aircraft and then can choose what level of IFE they put on the aircraft, rather than saying ‘you must have an embedded IFE system and with that you can choose connectivity’.”

In the near term future, adds Norris, if you have a Wi-Fi/GSM system onboard there are some airline customers who may elect not to have an embedded IFE system.

But what does this sort of cabin mean for IFE manufacturers? Thales vice-president of sales and marketing Jeff Sare says that while some carriers may opt not to offer IFE monitors in coach class, he doesn’t see embedded IFE going away in business and first class in part because of “the demands of the passengers paying to ride up there”.

Even in a wireless IFE environment, Thales would still play an important role. “What most people are talking about today when saying ‘wireless IFE’ is the ability for a passenger to use their own device, whether that’s rented or owned by the airline, or what they carry every day, to wirelessly connect to the entertainment network on the airplane,” says Sare, noting that Thales would still provide the satcom unit and the server, and continue to acquire, collect, format and provide the content on those servers, as it does today.

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5 Responses to Wireless IFE back in the fray

  1. alloycowboy September 25, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    Hey Mary,

    Any idea how much time, labour, and weight is saved by going with wifi installation on a typical airplane say like a 737. It should be significant because you don’t have wire the whole cabin.

  2. Mary Kirby September 25, 2009 at 8:01 pm #

    Thales and Panasonic say they did not see much in the way of weight savings when they first created wireless IFE solutions for the 787.

    In fact, Thales’ Sare, in speaking about the firm’s past solution, told me: “Back then, there was a number of issues with wireless IFE networks and that is that the equipment required to transmit high bandwidth wireless information from one box to another, covering dozens if not hundreds of seats…ends up being as heavy and power hungry – if not more so – than the wires, so there was no justification for doing it.”

    He adds: “That’s completely differant than the [wireless IFE] solution we’re taking about [now] where you have a network that has a Wi-Fi hotspot, as in your home or office, that I’m now logging onto with a small PDA.”

    I’m hoping to get more clarity on this at WAEA.

  3. Mojoh September 25, 2009 at 10:01 pm #

    Why go wireless when you still need to get power to the seat? The data trNsmission is much less of a worry.
    With wireless you also have to figure how 300+ users can receive streaming video from the servers and how that much bandwidth can be made available.
    Local storage and less bandwidth intensive content is possible but wireless video on wide body aircraft is a pipe dream at the moment

  4. alloycowboy September 28, 2009 at 9:15 am #

    @Mojoh

    I was hoping by going wireless it would save the trouble of having to run cables through out the entire aircraft. But your right that is kind of pointless since they have to run wires for the electrical power outlets for the laptops and also power and coxial cable for the in seat IFE units. Maybe Boeing should just start basket weaving airplanes out of braided copper cable it might be easier and lighter.

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