Chasing bandwidth could lead to dot-com-like bubble: Airbus

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Airbus is warning the industry that a potential dot-com-like bubble could form if airlines continue to pursue higher-bandwidth airborne Internet solutions instead of taking advantage of the connectivity hardware that comes line-fit on all its new aircraft.

In an exclusive interview, Airbus Operations vice-president cabin design office, Jonathan Norris says: "Airbus remains unconvinced about the Ku-band satcom business case, and is concerned that the continual chasing of more bandwidth could be the next dot-com bubble waiting to burst.

"There may be one or two passengers that want to download streaming media through the aircraft's Internet connection, but we believe that the majority of passengers would be very content if they could use SMS, access their BlackBerry and use webmail during their journey."

There are a number of technologies on the connectivity market today - L-band, Ku-band and air-to-Ground (ATG) - with a range of pricing strategies and tests ongoing.

Row 44 and in-flight entertainment and communications (IFE&C) giant Panasonic Avionics are pursing high-speed Ku-band connectivity strategies. The former recently secured Southwest Airlines as a full-fleet customer, while the latter has reached deals with several undisclosed carriers for its eXConnect solution.

Despite the apparent headway of these providers, Airbus remains unconvinced of the value proposition of Ku.

Asks Norris: "Why install a second satcom antenna when all Airbus line-fit aircraft are delivered with an L-band SwiftBroadband (SBB) antenna that can provide a comprehensive range of connectivity functions including a managed Internet experience?"

On 24 June, an Airbus A340-600 completed a test flight during which both classic services (cockpit voice/data link) and SBB services (Internet, emails and up to 16 GSM simultaneous calls) were successfully tested for more than 10 hours.

During the test flight satellite handovers were performed (Inmarsat I4-Europe-Middle-East-Africa to I3 then I3 to I4-Americas satellites) in order to ensure service continuation on classic satcom (flight critical), even if SBB services were lost, notes Norris.

While Airbus sees great potential for connectivity to provide new passenger services, it believes non-IFE uses for connectivity will take precedence for many airlines.

"We have received feedback from several airlines that believe that the benefits of having a connected aircraft are potentially greater for airline and/or crew applications (e.g. customer relationship management, telemedicine, credit card validation, targeted advertising etc.) than for passenger applications," says Norris.