Aircraft interiors EXPO: Oi! ARINC answer call for airborne Internet

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ARINC’s new Oi service is set to offer versatile in-flight connectivity to passengers, reports BRENDAN GALLAGHER

The A380 is the biggest airliner in history, and Emirates is on course to have a bigger fleet of the giant Airbuses than any other airline on earth. At November’s Dubai Airshow the Middle Eastern carrier signed a contract that brought its A380 commitment to 58 aircraft – over a quarter of the total order book and well ahead of household names like Air France, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Qantas.

Emirates’ attitude to the A380 is a reflection of its taste for the biggest and the best in everything, including passenger communications. The airline has just become the first in the world to offer a fully commercial onboard mobile phone service to its passengers. Developed by ARINC subsidiary AeroMobile and employing Inmarsat for the air-to-ground link, the service allows passengers to use their own phones and personal digital assistants to make calls and send and receive text messages and emails.

But the airline has a reputation for never standing still in its quest for cabin-service excellence – it is continuously upgrading its already industry-leading Panasonic-based inflight entertainment offering, for instance – and now it has an opportunity to give its passengers even more in the way of communications.

arinc web portal 
 The Oi system from Arinc gives seatback access to the web or can go straight to your laptop in flight.

The AeroMobile cellphone service has been proved to run very well on Inmarsat’s Classic Aero and Swift 64 systems. But last year’s launch of the 432kbit/sec SwiftBroadband means that affordable Internet access via Inmarsat is a real prospect for the airlines, and AeroMobile is preparing to add this capability to its portfolio.   
Called Oi – for “onboard Internet” – this new service is in development for offer to the airlines this year. It centres on a Web portal designed to be hosted on the aircraft’s cabin server and made accessible to in-seat screens and passenger laptops by both wired and wireless networks. A clear, user-friendly selection of screens allows the passenger to select among a range of offerings, including Internet and corporate network access, Webmail, instant messaging, live news and sport, podcasts and airline information. The service will be open to both Mac and PC laptops, and the user will not have to load any special software.

Oi has been developed over the past 15 months by ARINC for use by AeroMobile. Responsible for the look and feel of the portal is UK agency 28 Design, part of the IFE Alliance group and already an experienced supplier of software support for inflight entertainment to leading international airlines, including Emirates, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Continental, KLM, Swiss and Singapore Airlines.

“The appearance and functionality are all driven by a realistic understanding of the bandwidth provided by SwiftBroadband,” says project manager Colette Parks, ARINC’s UK-based satellite services business manager. “Unlike earlier efforts with other satellite technologies to offer unmetered Internet access to passengers, this is a managed connectivity service that will encourage users to make economical use of the available communications capacity.” Based on a standard two-channel SwiftBroadband installation, that capacity is expected to be enough to mimic the ADSL connections used in many homes and offices.   

ARINC wants Oi to be as easy to use as the best WiFi hotspots on the ground. “All the user has to do is start his laptop and open a browser,” says Parks. “The Oi home page will then open up automatically and he will be able to access a variety of free and paid-for facilities.” 28 Design has established a basic look and feel for Oi that customer airlines will be free to adopt in its entirety or have customised to reflect their own branding.

In a demonstration version on show at the World Airline Entertainment Association convention in Toronto last September the Oi home page offered eight choices – News, Sports, Weather, Webmail, Webchat (instant messaging), SMS (text messaging), Podcasts, Web access and Airline information. “We want it to appeal to both business and leisure travellers,” comments Parks.

The news can served up as text plus brief audio and video clips, the latter transmitted from the ground in segments, cached on the airborne server, and then reassembled into complete files for streaming to the passenger in near real-time. ARINC has been working with providers such as Inflight Productions – which supports the company’s existing Classic Aero-based text news service – to see how the content comes across when delivered in different file sizes and resolutions.

This has led to a good understanding of what can be achieved with the SwiftBroadband link. Audio news bulletins, higher-quality stereo music and Web-quality video should present little challenge at 30kb, 250kb and 250kb per minute respectively. Full-screen video, at 1Mb per minute, will call for a little more thought.   

“We’re in the middle of negotiating deals for the supply of content with companies like Sky News, which currently provides us with text news, and with the BBC,” says Parks. “And we’re open to working with CNN and any of the other major providers.”

emirates a380 
 Airbus A380 under Emirates is an ideal platform for the biggest and the best of passenger communications

The Webmail facility is designed to allow users of Web-based services such as Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail and Gmail to view their inboxes and send messages with attachments. It also accommodates the Web email services offered by major Internet service providers like AOL, which allow the user to access his mail remotely via any PC with a browser. “Attachments are basically restricted to 10kb in size, though individual airlines are free within reason to set a higher limit,” says Parks.

 “We aim to offer managed live access with limited streaming services and file downloads,” says Parks. “This approach will provide a better experience for passengers throughout the cabin, and will allow the airlines to price the basic service attractively while still offering access to private company networks (VPNs) at a premium price to those who are willing to pay for it.” 

The Internet basic service will provide firewalled, unfiltered access. It will be managed to ensure that the user experience is acceptable at all times but there will be no guarantee of minimum data rates. The premium VPN service, by contrast, will come with a guarantee of a minimum rate of 80kbit/sec. This will be achieved by restricting the number of users accessing the service at any one time and holding the rest in a queue.

VPN access is inherently more expensive because the system has to accept all of the Java applets and other software objects associated with company sites, instead of stripping them away as it does with public sites. “This leads inevitably to higher data flows,” Parks explains.

A key feature of Oi will be content that makes no demands at all on the air-to-ground link, being loaded to the aircraft on the ground before departure. Such material includes the airline’s own frequent-flier updates and destination information, which will be loaded via wireless gatelink or with conventional hand-carried data loaders. 

Pricing was seen as one of the Achilles heels of earlier approaches to passenger connectivity, and ARINC is determined not to repeat that mistake. “The big airlines want to offer a lot of content free, and all of them want different price points for different types of traveller,” says Parks. “We see Webmail being priced at less than $10 a flight, with attachments beyond a certain size attracting an extra charge. But in the end it all depends on what the airline wants – the system is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of pricing schemes.”

Passengers will be able to select access by the hour or by the day, including multiple flight legs, and they will pay by a variety of means – credit or pre-paid cards, special access codes and via their usual mobile or Internet service provider accounts.    

 Until recently the airlines have seen connectivity primarily as a customer-attracting addition to their service offerings, while some have entertained hopes that it might also be a net revenue generator. But now, says Parks, some smaller carriers believe it could also be used to supplement the basic broadcast inflight entertainment systems fitted to their aircraft, easing the pressure for installation of expensive in-seat, on-demand hardware. 

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