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IN FOCUS: A smarter way to stay in touch

As wi-fi installations surge in popularity, more and more airlines are also bringing in cellular services to satisfy passengers' desire to use their smartphones in flight

By: Kristin Majcher

It is no secret that wi-fi installations on ­aircraft are spiking, with operators ­making announcements left, right and centre about deploying the service across entire fleets. However, a more understated trend is also in play as some airlines opt for services that enable passengers to text, place voice calls and use data on their own mobile phones.

While one differentiator for this service is the ability to make phone calls in the cabin on one's own personal device, the main mobile providers say that telephony services actually comprise only a small percentage of passengers' usage on the flights.

Aeromobile model

Therefore, to understand why passengers are using the devices requires a closer look at airlines' strategies for connecting their passengers, which are more closely aligning with mobile usage behaviours on the ground and providing options for staying in touch that more closely align to their own usage needs.

Uptake of global system for mobile communications (GSM) services and other types of mobile connectivity is increasing along with wi-fi usage, statistics show.

According to a study released in September 2012, IHS' subsidiary IMS Research predicts the number of aircraft connected with wi-fi, cellular or both technologies to reach 4,570 aircraft by the end of 2013. It expects the number of aircraft connected with cellular technology to increase by 81% in 2012 to 411.

In many cases, airlines are opting to install mobile connectivity in tandem with wi-fi as part of a full connectivity package. IMS expected aircraft with wi-fi and cellular connectivity to increase at a rapid rate of 355%, from about 99 aircraft at the beginning of 2012 to 450 by the end of 2012.

Heads of the two largest in-flight mobile companies say that based on data for this year so far, there is no reason why this growth will not continue in 2013.

"The amount of data traffic that we're seeing on our network in this quarter is going to be double what we saw in Q4 last year," says Kevin Rogers, chief executive of UK-based AeroMobile, which has mobile services installed on 140 aircraft spanning across eight major commercial airlines and two VIP carriers. Majority-owned by Panasonic Avionics, AeroMobile provides the eXPhone service for its parent company's Global Communications Suite. The mobile firm expects to increase the number of aircraft equipped with its service to 200 by the first quarter of 2014.

The growth is primarily coming from operators' recently ramped-up marketing efforts, says Rogers. Now that airlines have outfitted more than just a few initial aircraft, they are starting to market the technology more actively. One example he points out is Virgin Atlantic, which had all of its London ­Gatwick-based aircraft outfitted with mobile capabilities at the end of 2012.

Virgin Atlantic's Gatwick-based fleet of seven Boeing 747s have all been equipped with the AeroMobile product, the carrier says. The service has also been outfitted on five Boeing 747s based out of London's Heathrow airport, as well as 10 Airbus A330s.

"One of the key contributors is improved awareness," says Rogers. "As the airlines roll out the service to more and more of their fleets, they're in a position to more broadly market the service and make their passengers aware," said Rogers. "We see a very, very distinct correlation between those marketing activities, basic cabin crew training procedures and the amount of traffic we're seeing on the aircraft."

SITA subsidiary OnAir, the other dominant provider of inflight mobile services, says it is also seeing usage increase and estimates that 805 of airlines' frequent flyers carry a smartphone. It has 16 customers that have chosen a combination of its OnAir Mobile and OnAir Internet services, electing to operate either one or both of the services. Another seven customers will launch in 2013, says Ian Dawkins, chief of the Geneva-based firm.

The connectivity provider holds supplemental type certificates (STCs) to retrofit mobile and internet technology on the Airbus A320, A330 and A340 family, as well as the Boeing 737, 767 and 777 for airline and VIP customers. Through service bulletins, it can retrofit the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 and has linefit capabilities for the Airbus A320, A330 and A380, as well as the Boeing 777 and 787 via Thales' TopConnect in-flight entertainment system. Airbus A350 customers will be able to choose OnAir as a linefit ­option as well.

While customers have the option to install each as a standalone service, many are opting to do both.

"The majority are taking GSM and wi-fi because it's a clear differentiator," says Dawkins.

AeroMobile sees the same thing happening on its network. "The vast, vast majority of the airlines install both wi-fi and the mobile phone connectivity," says Rogers.

LIVE TELEVISION

Emirates is one airline striving to give passengers a fully connected experience, offering wi-fi, mobile services, and more recently live television on selected aircraft. It works with both OnAir and AeroMobile, with services depending on the aircraft type.

At the moment, Emirates has more aircraft connected with GSM services than with wi-fi, says Patrick Brannelly, Emirates' vice-president product. Emirates has 98 aircraft outfitted with in-flight phone service, he says, with eight supporting GPRS data.

Thirty-two Emirates aircraft have wi-fi, made up of 31 A380s equipped with OnAir Internet and one Boeing 777 with Panasonic's Global Communications Suite, which includes Ku-band connectivity and live television. Since launching mobile phone services five years ago, the carrier has seen more than 15 million people switch on a telephone in flight to use the system and sees an average of about 25,000 texts sent each month through the service.

 Emirates IFE

Emirates

Emirates offers a fully-connected experience including live television and mobile services

Connectivity providers say that mobile usage in flight is following trends on the ground, with data usage rising rapidly. In 2012 the world's mobile data traffic grew by 70%, according to recent analysis by networking specialist Cisco.

In the air, passengers are using their mobile phones more for data services such as the internet and texting than for actually placing voice calls. And when they do, they are relatively short.

On a typical transatlantic flight, AeroMobile has about 50 devices connect to its service, with customers placing 12 calls. In total, passengers' combined phone usage is about 48 minutes. Calls typically last only one to two minutes, says Rogers, pointing out that this includes users who are using their phones solely to check voicemail. Users are sending about 259 texts per flight and use about 38MB of data.

AeroMobile's technology has been retrofitted on Boeing 747-400s, 777-200s/-300s, ­737-800s, as well as Airbus A330-200s/-300s and A340-300s/-500s. The company has linefit ­options for the 737 and 777, with the 787 to come on line in the future. It expects some further customers to come on board in the third quarter.

In 2012, about 5.5 million mobile devices accessed the AeroMobile network, with more than 15 million passengers connecting since the service was launched in 2008. Since that time, the connectivity provider has seen more than 12 million texts transferred throughout its network and more than 720,000 calls.

OnAir says it is also seeing a huge uptick in mobile data usage, calculating a record of 239 mobile phones active on the network during a flight. About 47% of the customers using OnAir's GSM service send text messages, and 42% use their mobile devices for e-mail. Only about 11% make calls during the flight. OnAir says that 66% of its customers have opted for both the GSM and wi-fi options on its aircraft when both are available, compared with 31% just choosing GSM and a mere 3% opting just for wi-fi.

OnAir says that when passengers have the choice, a majority of them decide to use the GSM service.

"If you have the choice between wi-fi and GSM, we see 90% of people prefer to use a smartphone," said Dawkins.

Some of the services between wi-fi and mobile usage overlap. For example, a passenger could check their e-mail via their own device, or through a wi-fi service onboard. In that case, the main difference is in how passengers are paying for these services.

Airlines offering wi-fi typically require passengers to pay for the service, although some have opted to offer the service for free. But with mobile devices, fliers would simply turn on their device in cabins outfitted for mobile use and use it as they would on the ground, incurring roaming charges on their bill as they would with a standard inter­national call.

To do this, AeroMobile and OnAir have forged partnerships with several cell phone providers in various countries to form roaming arrangements. AeroMobile has 215 agreements with wireless providers and plans to increase that number to 250 within the next year. OnAir has more than 350 roaming agreements and regulatory authority to operate its mobile services in more than 90 countries.

One country where mobile usage has not taken off is the USA, where regulatory limitations have been placed on using GSM services in flight. Under the current regulations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits passengers from using mobile phones' 800MHz frequency in flight on commercial aircraft within US airspace because of potential interference.

Many foreign-registered aircraft on routes to the USA are already equipped with the technology. However, on aircraft entering the USA from abroad, regulations require mobile connectivity to shut off when the aircraft reaches US airspace.

The in-flight mobile providers foresee an eventual lift on the ban, although regulators have not directly indicated plans to implement changes that would allow this market to open up. However, there have been a few recent developments that point to regulators and lawmakers becoming amenable to a more relaxed stance in the future for connectivity on portable electronic devices (PEDs), which industry is hoping could lead to permission for mobile usage.

For example, in a letter to then-acting US Federal Aviation Administration administrator Michael Huerta in December 2012, US senator Claire McCaskill urged the FAA to allow personal devices to be used during all phases of flight, noting that she was "prepared to pursue legislative solutions" if the agency did not update rules for PED use in a timely manner.

Days before, on 6 December, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski had sent his own letter to Huerta, detailing his support for "greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable electronic devices during flight, consistent with public safety".

In August, the FAA detailed its plan to put together a working group made up of industry and government interests to study the effects of PEDs during all phases of flight. Even though the FAA insisted that this particular rule-making committee would not consider voice communications on cell phones during flights, industry heads see the formation of the group as a positive development.

The opening of the US market would mean more revenue for connectivity companies, as well as mobile providers on the ground. AeroMobile's Rogers says he expects the US market for these services to open eventually.

"It's too early to say that I'm very confident, but the sentiment in the US regulator is changing significantly from even what it was just a year ago," said Rogers. "It is only a matter of time now, I believe, before we will be able to switch the system on over US airspace on a foreign-registered aircraft."

Dawkins says that some of the most high-usage routes OnAir sees are either to or from the USA.

REVENUE POTENTIAL

"The USA is very high-usage, going to and from the US, with aircraft registered outside of the US," he says, adding that he expects it would take about four to six months for OnAir to equip aircraft in the region with mobile coverage if regulations allowed that to happen.

AeroMobile says the market would be "significant" for its revenues, based on the opportunities it would afford with the existing routes it flies.

"If you just extrapolate the flight time, you're looking at sort of 20-30% upside in business opportunity," says Rogers.

The opening of the US market could be a way for existing connectivity providers in the region to add service, but California-based connectivity provider Row 44 has already indicated that it plans to start offering GSM services in non-US markets.

"We're actually pretty far along in terms of what our planning is, right down to having identified hardware vendors and relationships with [telephone companies] in that ­regard," Row 44 chief executive John LaValle says.

The company has been testing various SMS and telephony services "on and off for the better part of a year", LaValle says. It has installed a picocell in its Grumman HU16B Albatross testbed aircraft to achieve this and says that it has seen positive results.