Emirates looks again at Ku-band as overseas broadband heats up

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Emirates is taking a serious look at bringing high-speed Internet to passengers, and reveals it is studying whether the business case for a Ku-band satellite-based solution has improved enough to adopt for its fleet.

In an exclusive interview with ATI last week in Dubai aboard an Emirates Airbus A380 bound for Toronto, company vice-president for passenger communications Patrick Brannelly said: "There is no global solution today for Internet for passengers on a big plane like this. Ku will cover many of the regions in the world. We are looking at the affordability.

"We 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."

The executive notes that connectivity is very important to Emirates' passengers. "They want to be connected but they want to be connected affordably. I don't think they want to spend $100 on a flight to get the Internet. It needs to be affordable. It needs to be easy. So they want to be able to use their familiar devices to be able to get on the Internet very quickly."

A pioneer in onboard connectivity, Emirates already provides access to seat-back dial-up e-mail and SMS communications, as well as satcom telephony.

Also using basic connectivity the carrier keeps the news and sports content on its in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems fresh with real-time headlines during flight.

The carrier's current A380s, for example, run news and sports headlines over Inmarsat's Swift64 aeronautical service to Panasonic Avionics IFE, "but we also run this off over standard ACARS datalink because we're sending up the headlines which are quite small packages of information, and then its repurposed to a 'managed' web site so it appears to passengers that they are accessing the BBC web site", says Brannelly, noting that 10min after takeoff on the hour "you can see the news, see it flood in".

But Emirates is also in the midst of equipping its aircraft with AeroMobile's Inmarsat-supported in-flight connectivity solution, which allows passengers to use their own cell phones during flight. Some 60 aircraft in Emirates' 139-strong fleet have already been fitted with AeroMobile.

The carrier's A380s will eventually offer AeroMobile. "It is very much difficult to do something on a plane that's in production, to change the production, so we're working with Airbus and our partners to make that happen as soon as possible. But we are getting people saying 'we really want it'," says Brannelly.

At present, Emirates operates five A380s, and has orders for a further 53. At some point in the delivery schedule, the ultra-large widebodies will come line-fit with Inmarsat's higher-bandwidth SwiftBroadband (SBB) service.

"SBB is going to be standard on the A380 eventually once they have got some of the avionics equipment, the new generation updated," notes Brannelly.

But while SBB "is the future in terms of basic connectivity" for an aircraft, it cannot support high-speed broadband connectivity. For that, Emirates is in talks with Ku-band service providers to explore its options, he says.

Panasonic is bringing a Ku-band connectivity solution to market called eXConnect. Lufthansa recently signed on as launch customer, and will equip its international fleet with the high-speed offering.