Airline Connectivity: Making the Connection

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If you ask Oman Air chief executive Peter Hill why he feels so strongly about providing in-flight connectivity to passengers on long-haul flights, the seasoned airline veteran will give you the type of highly informed answer you would expect from a chief technology officer.

The recent emergence of mobile devices including the Apple iPhone, RIM Blackberry and Google G1 has "blurred the line between phones and computers and this market is fast increasing", says Hill.

"Services like e-mail, SMS, YouTube and [social networking sites] Facebook and Twitter are part and parcel of everyday life for many people today. It must also be remembered that there is a growing segment of the travelling public who have spent most of their adult lives in the 'digital' age and 'connectivity' is taken as a given."

onair handsets (445) 
 OnAir©
People are expecting Internet and mobile connectivity "anywhere, anytime," he adds. "And what better place is there, than when you are on an airplane and have a few quiet, uninterrupted hours to catch up on your e-mail, browse the Internet or to return that quick phone call?"

In short, travellers are no longer willing to stay disconnected for long periods of time, including on commercial flights. And even airline chief executives have taken notice. That is why a raft of carriers from around the world are either in the process of installing - or have made plans to install - systems on board their aircraft that allow passengers to use their cell phones to send/receive SMS message, e-mail and voice calls, use their own personal electronic devices and laptops to connect to the Internet, or, as in the case of Oman Air, to do both.

Relative to the size of the world fleet, the more than 800 aircraft already fitted with in-flight connectivity systems to support passengers' own devices represent a small fraction of the amount that will be eventually equipped.

Over 4,500 commercial aircraft will be installed with passenger connectivity systems by 2013, according to a new report from UK-based in-flight entertainment and communications consultancy IMDC. This figure will be achieved as airlines adopt three different types of connectivity; Inmarsat L-band satellite-supported services; air-to-ground-based Wi-Fi solutions such as Aircell's Gogo service in the United States; and Ku-band technologies that allow passengers to access high-speed airborne Internet, including on overseas flights.

But while all three technologies bring various levels of connectivity to passengers onboard, they "have absolutely nothing to do with each other", says IMDC chief executive Wale Adepoju. For example, a Boeing 777, 747 or Airbus A380 providing L-band satellite-based mobile phone service in the Asia-Pacific region has no synergy with a Boeing 737 providing Wi-Fi in the USA.

"They've got different life cycles, different business models and in some cases you cannot offer it for free," explains Adepoju. "Somebody has to pay for satellite space, and just getting the data from A to B." Consequently, there is no one-size-fits-all connectivity solution for carriers. "Basically, one of the things we've said to airline executives is: 'Your connectivity cannot simply copy someone else. You've got to look at your own network.' The number of variables is so large that there is no common rule. Most of the solutions in the market are optimised for a certain environment. If you're in that environment, you get the value from the systems," says Adepoju.

A Regional Solution

This is perhaps most evident in the United States, where there exists a dedicated air-to-ground network to support in-flight Wi-Fi, but where the in-flight use of cell phones is banned (see box on page 40).

Chicago-based Aircell, which also owns the spectrum license to offer broadband to carriers, is the dominant service provider in the country, having forged deals with string of major carriers including AirTran Airways, American, Delta Air Lines and its merger partner Northwest, United, US Airways and Virgin America.

Star Alliance carrier Air Canada also recently began trialling Aircell's signature Gogo service on select transborder routes, becoming the first international customer for connectivity firm Aircell.

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"We'll wrap up this year with about 695 [equipped aircraft]. Delta will be finished with its entire mainline domestic fleet and we're well on our way with the certification process with five Northwest fleet types," says Aircell executive vice-president, airlines John Happ, who sees other potential new business opportunities for the firm, such as at Republic Airways and its new subsidiaries, Frontier and Midwest Airlines.

Other factors likely to colour the connectivity considerations of certain airlines is Airbus' decision to make Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband high speed service standard on all new long-range aircraft, and Boeing's soft indication that it might follow Airbus' lead. Boeing recently issued a request for information for a SwiftBroadband-supported satcom interface and onboard mobile telephony installation for the 787 twinjet.

Since SwiftBroadband is going to become the entry point to connectivity for many operators of new long-range aircraft, the perceived war between this solution and Ku-band offerings is misplaced, suggests Emirates vice-president for passenger communications Patrick Brannelly.

"That's the oddity [that] people are not realising. SwiftBroadband is going to be a standard...the standard connectivity platform for an aircraft," he says, noting that SwiftBroadband and Ku "are very different products" and can't be compared simply because the word broadband is in the title.

SwiftBroadband provides data rates of about 432 kilobits per second, and currently supports mobile connectivity and light Internet services from Airbus/SITA joint venture OnAir, which boasts a lengthy roster of clients, including Ryanair.

"With over 20 customers on four continents, our operations are expanding quickly across a range of markets and market segments. According to a recent passenger survey, 80% of passengers who have used 'Mobile OnAir' services on selected flights would like these services to be available on every flight," says OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains.

Among long-haul operators, Oman holds the distinction of having taken delivery of the first commercial widebody to offer both 'Mobile OnAir' and 'Internet OnAir' via SwiftBroadband. Passengers aboard the new Airbus A330-300 will be able to use their cell phones and light Internet by the end of January 2010.

Converging Trends

"In today's wired world, the two converging trends have greyed the distinction between 'mobile' and 'Internet' and a passenger today expects both capabilities or services," says Hill. The Middle Eastern carrier's three earlier delivered A330s will be retrofitted with the system during the summer of 2010, and all future Oman A330s will be equipped. But while Oman is likely to set the connectivity standard on long-haul aircraft in the near-term, its offering could be eclipsed by higher-bandwidth solutions from mid-2010.

Next year is when former Connexion by Boeing customer Lufthansa is scheduled to reignite its 'FlyNet'-branded high-speed Internet service. As the launch customer and by far the biggest customer for the defunct Connexion service, Lufthansa was the first airline to launch wireless broadband Internet on board its aircraft.

connexion switches off

The Star Alliance carrier had rolled the service out across 62 of its aircraft by the time Connexion was switched off at the end of 2006. "All the way back to 2003, I can remember the first test flights when we all sat there and sent emails to our friends and family on the ground and just thought that this was something truly amazing and spectacular," says Jennifer Janzen, Lufthansa's communications manager in New York.

"Of course today it is fairly widespread [in the United States], but the difference is that with Lufthansa's service it is of course broadband and satellite based. That means we are one of perhaps two airlines right now in the world that will offer a broadband connection over water, and I think that's something that passengers, and especially business travellers, will definitely appreciate."

In the second half of 2010 Lufthansa plans to bring Panasonic Avionics' eXConnect broadband solution to the majority of 70 aircraft already fitted with Connexion hardware. By the end of 2011 eXConnect should be on Lufthansa's full long-haul fleet.

Operated over Ku-band satellites, eXConnect offers significantly more bandwidth than SwiftBroadband. Mobile phone services, courtesy of Panasonic's partnership with Arinc/Telenor tie-up AeroMobile, are also included in the Lufthansa deal. These, though, will be restricted to data services and will not include voice calls.

Panasonic vice-president, global communications services David Bruner says that since the Lufthansa agreement was announced, airlines have picked up their pace of evaluating Ku-band. "It has heated up tremendously, not just for us, but for everyone in the marketplace," he says.

Ku-Band Solution

A competing product to Panasonic's eXConnect is US firm Row 44's Ku-band solution. Alaska Airlines has equipped a single Boeing 737 narrowbody for the Row 44 service and Southwest Airlines has equipped four 737s with the service. Alaska intends to offer the capability across its entire fleet, including on overseas flights, although it has not yet announced a formal fleet-wide agreement with Row 44.

In a coup of sorts for Row 44, low-cost giant Southwest in August 2009 announced an agreement to begin rollout of the in-flight Wi-Fi solution on the rest of its massive fleet starting in the first quarter of 2010.

IMDC's Adepoju says Ku-band "is very different now than it was five or six years ago" and has improved in terms of performance. It is also less costly to operate. One of the reasons for Connexion's demise in late 2006 was the high level of fixed costs that Boeing had to carry in leasing transponders to cover a global footprint. To keep fixed costs down, service providers are now applying for only the data they use.

Lufthansa, Alaska and Southwest are not the only carriers taking notice. Dubai-based Emirates, which is in the process of rolling out AeroMobile's mobile connectivity service across its entire fleet, has recently admitted it is now taking a fresh look at Ku-band solutions going forward.

The Gulf carrier "didn't think there was a good business case when Connexion by Boeing offered it the first time and we're looking to see whether the business case has improved", says Emirates' Brannelly.

While there is no global solution today for airborne high-speed Internet, Ku-band "will cover many of the regions in the world", says Brannelly, adding: "We are looking at the affordability."

Having already secured a cadre of US legacy airline customers for its air-to-ground Gogo system, Aircell is also working to provide airlines with a Ku-band system for overseas flights.

"There is no question that airlines are going [to adopt Ku]. It's certainly in our mind. [And] If you ask any airline, they'll say the same thing," says Aircell's Happ. "We are staying close, and we've got what will be a natural pathway. It is satellite based, and it's just a question of when the first partner wants to start moving."

WILL THE USA MISS THE CALL?

Debate over whether or not the in-flight use of cell phones should be permitted on commercial flights is raging in only one part of the world - the United States.

While airlines in Asia, Europe and the Middle East are unceremoniously equipping their aircraft with satellite-based systems to support airborne wireless voice calls - almost becoming a standard among Middle East operators - US legislators are seeking to impose a permanent federal ban against such activity, citing nuisance concerns.

"The public doesn't want to be subjected to people talking on their cell phones on an already over-packed airplane," US congressman Peter DeFazio said in 2008 when he first introduced so-called Hang-Up Act legislation in the House of Representatives to ensure the Federal Communications Commission's current in-flight cell phone ban stays firmly in place.

DeFazio, whose bill also seeks to ban in-flight voice over IP, argues that the free market "wasn't adequate to regulate smoking on planes" so it "won't be sufficient to regulate cell phones either".

In standalone form, the Hang-Up Act failed in the House. But a decision by its supporters to tuck the bill into the House version of FAA reauthorisation legislation - which covers funding for the nation's air traffic control system - is proving far more threatening, and has prompted in-flight mobile connectivity rivals AeroMobile and OnAir to act.

Together with support from other industry players Panasonic Avionics, Inmarsat and Rockwell Collins, AeroMobile and OnAir have been lobbying against the House amendment under the umbrella of the In-flight Passenger Communications Coalition.

The group's executive director, Carl Biersack, is tasked with beating the IPCC's drum on Capitol Hill. "These days, our cell phones have become as ubiquitous in our daily lives as our cars. In fact, one can now safely make a cell phone call around the world on commercial flights - but not yet in the USA. If a proposed ban on in-flight wireless voice communications and VoIP passes Congress, the USA may never join the rest of the globe," he argues.

From a global perspective, says Inmarsat head of aeronautical marketing business Lars Ringertz, it is difficult to understand the sometimes quite emotional debate that is taking place in the USA regarding in-flight cell phone use.

"The real life experience of commercially operating aircraft equipped with cell phone solutions for quite some time now have proven beyond any doubt that fears of air rage is unfounded," says Ringertz. "It is important to recognise that a ban will most certainly also prevent the use of Blackberries, PDAs, text messaging and other 'discrete' modes of communication which is using the same [underlying] technology.

"To introduce legislation rather than allowing the US airlines themselves to decide what services to offer, allowing their passenger to vote with their feet, can only have a negative impact," he says.

The IPCC's efforts appear to be making some headway. The US Senate opted not to include a Hang-Up Act-type amendment to its version of FAA reauthorisation legislation.

The differences between the House and Senate bills will eventually need to be resolved. But any resolution is not likely to happen immediately.

Last month the House passed another funding extension for the FAA, which has been running on temporary extensions since 2007. The latest extension expires at the end of March and gives lawmakers more time to work on a multi-year bill.

Some consumer advocacy groups, including the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, have asked Congress to commission a study on the use of wireless communications devices on US commercial flights before imposing a federal ban.

"In today's ultra competitive global business climate, deals happen and commerce moves at the speed of the latest telecommunications technology - hours and even seconds count," says SBE Council president chief executive Karen Kerrigan.

"By denying US passengers the ability to stay connected while on flights, while our international counterparts are able to do so, could create a significant disadvantage for US business travellers."