IN FOCUS: Airlines hunt for a connectivity catalyst

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The in-flight connectivity market is growing rapidly, and operators now have myriad options for the systems they can install on their aircraft to give passengers in-flight wi-fi. As passengers start bringing more types of personal electronic devices on board, airlines are choosing to install wi-fi regardless of whether it comes packaged with an embedded IFE system or not.

Only about 16% of the world's global commercial fleet in 2012 provides passengers with connectivity, according to a recent market report from UK-based consultancy IMDC. That number is expected to grow to 23% in 2016, or about 4,000 aircraft, says the firm.

airline computer use row 44

 Row 44

Southwest has 270 aircraft enabled with Row 44 wi-fi

At any given time, at least one in 12 airline passengers is using a tablet, and tablets account for 30% of passengers' technology use on commercial aircraft, according to a January study on transit connectivity from the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. Technology use overall on aircraft has jumped from 17.6% of passengers in 2009 to 28.4% in 2011, the study says.

Connectivity providers are starting to deploy satellite capacity in new regions to take advantage of new fleet capacity in emerging regions, as well as the capability to offer wireless internet on flights from the USA to Europe.

Illinois-based Gogo has already secured customers including Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines and Frontier Airlines for its air-to-ground (ATG) network, which provides wireless coverage in the continental USA and Canada at peak speeds of up to 3.1 Mbps. However, the provider is introducing a next-generation ATG system - ATG-4 - to boost those speeds to 9.8 Mbps. Gogo expects it will start ATG-4 equipment upgrades on its premium service fleet of 13 Boeing 757 aircraft in early 2013.

Gogo has also recognised the appeal of expanding its coverage outside North America through Ku-band satellites, with existing customer Delta Air Lines signing up as the new service's first customer for its international long-haul fleet of more than 150 Boeing and Airbus widebodies.

California-based Row 44, which provides Ku-band satellite technology, is also busy bringing its Ku-band service to aircraft in the USA and abroad. At the end of August, its largest customer Southwest had 270 aircraft enabled with Row 44 wi-fi, with ongoing installations bringing that number close to 300, says Angela Vargo, manager of customer experience at Southwest.

Vargo says the airline is planning to have more than 400 wi-fi installations by the end of the year and notes that it is seeing increased usage of aircraft equipped with wi-fi, with reliability greater than 93%.

UPTICK IN USEAGE

"We're seeing increased utilisation," says Vargo, adding her belief that increasing numbers of tablets and mobile devices entering the market have led to the uptick in usage. She says that with Ku-band, Southwest has the ability to add capacity if needed.

"We have the ability to both increase bandwidth allocations as well as conduct other ways to help improve the experience in flight for the majority of customers," says Vargo.

Row 44 is also heavily investing in its expansion plans, garnering $45 million in funds, part of which will help to fund its international expansion plans. These include turning on Ku-band satellite coverage across the Atlantic and in Russia in the first quarter of 2013, which will complement deals to outfit ­Icelandair's and Transaero's fleets. Row 44's Ku connectivity reaches speeds of 11 Mbps for TCP/IP and more than 30 Mbps for UDP.

Geneva-based OnAir says that although Ku-band has been gaining airline interest, it is still seeing a strong demand for Inmarsat SwiftBroadband, underscored by recent deals from Cebu Pacific and ANA to start offering its Internet OnAir service in 2013. Like Gogo, OnAir will offer Ka-band technology as a partner with Inmarsat when it is available.

Miranda Mills, vice-president aerospace for GlobalXpress at Inmarsat, says SwiftBroadband has not yet realised its full potential, and that the satellite provider is planning to add bandwidth.

SwiftBroadband currently produces speeds of up to four simultaneous 432 kbps channels, but Inmarsat says it will offer a high data rate capability from mid-2013, increasing bandwidth to 700 kbps on the I4s satellite and 800 kbps on the Alphasat satellite, which will also provide multi-channel options.

OnAir chief executive Ian Dawkins says that even with its provision of SwiftBroadband wi-fi across Emirates' A380 fleet, it has not needed to increase capacity requirements.

"We've got fleets of A380s operating, and we've had no requirement to look for additional capacity on those aircraft at all," he says.

JetBlue says it will start retrofitting Ka-band equipment in its more than 170 Embraer E-190 and Airbus A320 aircraft at the end of this year using California-based ViaSat's new connectivity offering. The connectivity provider has teamed up with JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV to provide the service. United Airlines has also signed a letter of intent for ViaSat's Ka-band technology, which it says it will start installing on more than 200 domestic Boeing 737 and 757s in the fourth quarter of this year.

In late 2011, ViaSat deployed a high-capacity satellite, ViaSat-1, to support the Ka-band service in the USA, along with two legacy Ka-band satellites. Viasat-1 has a capacity of 140 Gbps and the Ka-band service is expected to provide speeds of at least 12 Mbps per customer.

ViaSat expects to see close to 400 aircraft equipped with the Ka-band technology in the USA by the third quarter of 2013. It also plans to offer Ka-band coverage in Europe and the Middle East with its satellite partners. Unlike Inmarsat, ViaSat's strategy is not to provide full global coverage immediately with Ka-band, but to focus on deploying satellites to support it in densely populated areas to take advantage of both regional and international traffic.

In the future, when flights pass through areas without Ka-band coverage, the service would switch to Ku-band, which is now supported by ViaSat's Yonder global Ku-band broadband service. "The antenna that we are in the process of developing will be able to switch from Ka to Ku," says ViaSat.

Inmarsat's global Ka-band solution GlobalXpress will be available from 2014 for government and maritime customers, with global service operational for airlines from early 2015.

GlobalXpress uses three Boeing-built satellites - the Inmarsat-5 constellation. Global Xpress offers download speeds of 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 5 Mbps and the satellites each carry 89 Ka-band beams.

Mills says the first I-5 satellite will launch in the third quarter of 2013, with the next two scheduled for deployment in 2014.

She does not foresee Ka-band causing any capacity issues. "I'm not concerned about capacity, and if it looks as though we are moving close then we will order more satellites," she says.

PROVIDERS PLUNGE INTO MEDIA STREAMS

Personal electronic devices allow airlines to save money on embedded IFE costs for short-haul aircraft, and add a complement to embedded systems. The topic of streaming content to the devices - either live with satellites or locally from an onboard server - is being discussed more and more in the industry.

"I think wireless streaming to personal devices is really becoming a hot topic that's catching on," says Alan Pellegrini, chief executive of the Thales IFEC business.

This year, Thales launched its AVA streaming-media offering, which serves either as a standalone product or integrated with the TopSeries AVANT embedded IFE system.

OnAir chief executive Ian Dawkins says the connectivity provider is currently performing trials for a new on-demand video service expected to hit the market by the beginning of 2013. The service focuses on providing multiple clips of up to 30min in length. The system is designed so that new video clips are transmitted to the aircraft via an Inmarsat SwiftBroadband satellite radio link multiple times throughout the flight. The information is then stored locally on an onboard server.

Southwest Airlines is also performing trials, but in this case for Row 44's live television, which can be accessed on personal electronic devices. The airline said at the end of August that its more than 270 aircraft equipped with wi-fi all have access to the television option for testing, which will have eight channels by the fourth quarter of 2012. The airline says the tests are going smoothly.