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.
Well 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.
“…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.