IN FOCUS: Small steps on airline in-flight connectivity road

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Connectivity in the cabin maybe on almost every airline's agenda, but its widespread adoption for passengers has been and remains a long road.

Plenty of installations in the North American market, and the launch of global broadband Internet, WiFi and GSM connections on aircraft elsewhere in the world have made inroads. But it has been more than a decade since Connexion by Boeing first promised to bring broadband connectivity to passenger cabins. And in terms of the global fleet it remains relatively early days for connectivity, especially the broadband services which will support data-hungry web and live broadcast services.

David Bruner at Panasonic Avionics - which offers a broadband connectivity service launched by Lufthansa last year - believes connectivity will usher a new dawn for IFE like that seen in the 1990s. "We had the first movement to in-seat video. It changed everything. Choice and control were the drivers then and its still about choice and control today."

Chief executive at specialist consultancy IMDC, Wale Adepoju, echoes Bruner's view that the industry is going through a paradigm shift. But he offers a note of caution. "Expectations are my biggest concerns," he says of broadband connectivity. "The reality is that the number of passengers it can reach is still small. It's still early days. The technology takes a while to roll out from aircraft one to 1,000."

"I think it will get there, the big thing is when it starts becoming line-fit," he adds. "The reality of it is the economics of putting something on separately is harder to justify. If you buy it new with the system onboard, that does change the economics."

In that respect Panasonic has just received a boost after reaching a much-sought commercial deal with Airbus for line-fit approval on the A380 for its broadband productivity suite. "We have about 70 aircraft equipped," says Bruner of Panasonic's broadband connectivity product. "Right now we are in the ramp up stage. That is really the aim for 2012, getting to critical mass with the number of aircraft equipped."

This is key to building the marketing and customer awareness of the service. "You can try and do it with one airline, but if you can get critical mass with four or five airline in a region, then you can really start to change behaviour," says Bruner.

Connectivity via mobile devices and onboard WiFi has similarly gained traction since the first services rolled at the end of 2007. Stephan Egli, chief commercial officer at OnAir which provides GSM and WiFi services, says: "The question is now how fast can I get it." Recent deals, including Thai Airways and TAP Portugal, take customers for OnAir's mobile and in-flight products to 46. Twenty of these have already begun deployments. "It means the snowball effect will continue," he says.

AeroMobile, the GSM and WiFi operator in which Panasonic has now taken a controlling interest, has more than a hundred aircraft flying. It will be rolled out on another 100 aircraft by the end of this year.

"If this was a normal telco business, it would have happened years ago," says AeroMobile chief executive Pal Bjordal of when the sector will reach a tipping point. "But this is the airline business and one of the things we were not used to is the certification process. It is something we under-estimated.

"Now we are getting to a point where it is coming together and the price of the satellites is coming down. I think this year we'll have a huge number of aircraft [installed] but next year will be the real rush of aircraft and when we will see the service spreading around a large number of airlines."

During the long gestation period in securing certification for in-flight mobile services and to widespread deployment, the applications likely to drive the service are much changed. In-flight voice calls, a topic of such heated debate in the US during the previous decade, have been surpassed first by SMS and emails, and now posting on social media like Facebook and Twitter.

"What we have learned is the whole telco industry has seen a major shift in revenue streams. The major revenue comes from data," says Bjordal, noting that last year there was even drop for the first time across the telecom industry in voice and SMS use. "People instead of sending an SMS will post on Facebook. That is what we see going forward. That is why we see the need for higher capacity service to provide a full 3G experience."

Here lies one of the questions facing the industry. What will be the vehicle for such connectivity? Much of the connectivity on US carriers has been supplied over the GoGo's North American air-to-ground network. But GoGo is also looking to push out internationally - Air China in November trialing its wireless IFE system - offered initially via Ku-band. In the longer term this will be provided over Ka-band through Inmarsat's Global Xpress service.

OnAir is the other distributor of Inmarsat's Global Xpress Ka-band service, which is slated for the airline market in 2014. In the meantime services are available over Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband system - which will itself be enhanced over the next year. Inmarsat's head of aeronautical marketing, Lars Ringertz believes this approach gives airlines the flexibility to match satellite capacity with demand, upgrading when the demand warrants it.

Row 44 and Panasonic are both offering broadband services over the Ku-band satellite network. Indeed Panasonic is renewing its faith Ku-band and will shortly announce a partner for a new satellite system designed to provide airline-dedicated coverage from late 2015. "We are putting the capacity where the demand, and have light capacity where the demand is lighter," says Bruner. "This allows us to be very efficient and lowest cost in the market place."

Alan Pellegrini, managing director of the in-flight entertainment business at Thales - who reported the strongest buzz during Aircraft Interiors from airlines around its WiFi product Ava - points to the challenges ahead for the connectivity business "Certainly almost every [airline] is very committed to connectivity, either taking it or looking at it," he says. "My gut feeling is it will happen and Thales intends to be a player. But there is still work to be done [by suppliers] on the economic case."

Providing the capability is only half the battle. Suppliers and airlines must also deliver the business case. After all Connexion by Boeing, for all its technical success in delivering broadband connectivity, ultimately failed as a business case. "Where CBB struggled was it did not have enough customers and ran into a difficult financial position," says Panasonic's Bruner. "Our timing was good. We rolled it out at the right time. We have over 1,300 aircraft committed."

Adepoju notes there are a variety of business models out there. "There is clearly a cluster in the US - where the costs [over the air-to-ground network] were relatively low," he says. "If you look at the transcontinental routes - hardly anybody flies JFK-LA without connectivity onboard. So it's become a product requirement."

But in terms of revenue, for an area of the business with it's fair share of much-hyped golden gooses in the past - think back to promises in-flight gambling would more than pay for an airline's IFE systems - connectivity is for the immediate future likely to deliver smaller gains.

Adepoju notes that when connectivity first emerged around eight years ago he used the analogy of it generating airlines up to twice as much revenue as duty free on long-haul flights. "That's the level of it in revenue terms," says Adepoju, who like Inmarsat's Ringertz, believes operational applications might prove an equally important opportunity for airlines. He adds: "It's not a bad thing, it's just connectivity is such a sexy thing and yet you'd make much more money just charging for a second bag."