Debate swirls over Airbus connectivity strategy

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Airbus' decision as yet not to make any alternative in-flight mobile connectivity service provider's solution line-fit offerable on its portfolio of aircraft has drawn criticism from some stakeholders, who question whether the European airframer is playing fair in the highly competitive in-flight entertainment (IFE) and connectivity sector.

But while the manufacturer admits it has not given the green light for line-fit offerability to any mobile connectivity provider other than OnAir - its joint venture with SITA - it rejects claims of anti-competitive behaviour. Instead Airbus points to a changing environment that requires it to assume more control of the basic communications architecture of the aircraft as the need grows for robust connectivity to support cockpit and flight-critical communications.

"Airbus is not opposed to competition either from service providers or hardware suppliers. Satcom or whatever other means of 'off-aircraft' connectivity is not the sole domain of an IFE provider. We have a need for off-aircraft connectivity which is becoming more and more non-IFE related, and more related to cockpit and flight-critical communications, and we don't believe that this is a domain where we should be beholden to one or more IFE suppliers," says Airbus vice-president design Jonathan Norris.

OnAir CEO Benoit Debains says he finds it "absolutely normal that the manufacturer wants to be involved in the communications of the aircraft, and the way the communications to the aircraft is done, because the communications [is for] cockpit and cabin, and of course the critical one is always the cockpit".

Their sentiments ring hollow to some industry players, who claim the manufacturer is stifling competition by telling airlines that OnAir is the only option available to airlines that want Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-supported mobile connectivity line-fit on the A320, A330, A340 and A380, as well the A350 widebody, which is expected to enter into service in 2013.

Sources allege the strategy has wider implications, impacting not only the mobile connectivity space but data applications as well. "No other vendor is going to be potentially able to offer a SwiftBroadband solution on an Airbus aircraft," alleges a source.

Another source claims there is an ongoing battle between Airbus and an A380 operator over the airframer's alleged insistence that the widebody is being tuned only for OnAir in the cabin and SITA in the cockpit.

The debate has grown particularly thorny in recent months as Airbus has not made OnAir rival AeroMobile's mobile connectivity service line-fit offerable on any of its aircraft. AeroMobile has already successfully retro-fitted its system, currently supported by Inmarsat's 'Classic' and Swift64 services, on six different airframe types spanning both Airbus and Boeing widebody aircraft.

The line-fit issue is also impacting Panasonic Avionics, a primary distributor of AeroMobile hardware, which offers the system under the brand eXPhone as part of a suite of connectivity solutions, which also includes the Ku-band-based eXConnect high-speed connectivity system.

"We are having difficulty receiving offerability for both eXPhone and eXConnect despite several customer requests," says Panasonic Avionics vice-president, global communications services David Bruner. "Panasonic is working hard with Airbus to try to work through these issues for the sake of the customers."

AeroMobile chief commercial officer Peter Tuggey says: "AeroMobile is actively supporting Panasonic in on-going negotiations with both Airbus and its airline customers regarding the benefits of our award-winning system on line-fitted aircraft."

Norris says Airbus is "more than happy to support different service providers" but that they need to meet the architectural requirements of the aircraft. "At the moment we don't have applications from other service providers that meet these requirements," he says.

The architecture referenced by Norris is known as Airbus' Airline Network Architecture or ALNA, which provides the platform for airborne mobile telephony and Internet services, and enables satcom communication capabilities for third party applications such as electronic flight bag (EFB), IFE and telemedicine.

The ALNA platform is available in a number of versions. GSM OnBoard - marketed as Mobile OnAir - allows virtually unlimited smart phone/PDA GPRS usage, and up to 16 passengers can make voice calls at the same time.

The ALNA v1 product, which uses Swift64, was developed for A380 entry into service as well as for A330 and A340 aircraft. It offers limited internet capabilities (webmail, webchat), among other services, and is certified and already flying with several airlines.

Still under development, ALNA v2 is a multi-programme, scalable and modular platform that enables Internet and an onboard mobile telephone system via Inmarsat's higher bandwidth SwiftBroadband aeronautical service. It is planned to be ready for deployment from the fourth quarter 2009. Contracted customers include Kingfisher Airlines, Air AsiaX, Oman Air, Egyptair and Hong Kong Airlines.

Norris says the communications manager software embedded in ALNA v2 handles the prioritisation of all areas of communication except air traffic services. "It is essential for service providers to be integrated with ALNA v2 to optimise and organise the usage of the satellite bandwidth between all on-board applications with the appropriate prioritisation," he says.

ALNA v2 is a prerequisite for offerability on A330, A340 and A380 aircraft, he confirms. With respect to the A350, Airbus has an on-going RFP process and says it cannot comment on the technical definition of the requirements.