Open channels: Will 2008 be the year for in-flight mobile phones and broadband?

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It looks as if 2008 will be the year that airlines finally begin to roll out in-flight mobile phone, blackberry, SMS and high speed internet services

In-flight connectivity providers are nothing if not ambitious, having previously heralded 2007 as the year that mobile phones and Blackberry-type handheld devices would start being regularly used by passengers on European and Middle ­Eastern carriers.

In the USA, where regulators retained a ban on in-flight mobile phone usage, the focus turned towards offering internet and virtual private network access through passengers' WiFi-enabled laptops and personal electronic devices over an air-to-ground network. And across the globe, expectations were high that the airborne broadband service terminated in December 2006 by Connexion by Boeing would be quickly replaced with more feasible satellite-based solutions, enabling video streaming and other functions that require high bandwidth.

As is so often the case with new in-flight entertainment and communications solutions, however, the anticipated timeline for bringing these services to market proved too ambitious. No formal launch of either airborne cellular or wireless broadband services occurred in 2007.

That is set to change. All signs now point to "sustainable rollouts of connectivity services" in 2008, says Walé Adepoju, chief executive of IMDC, a group of specialist consultants for airline onboard technology. "2007 was the year for the engineers, but from a user perspective I believe 2008 will be a year when different systems are going to roll out. They will trickle out, but there will be aircraft out there where you will be able to open up your Blackberry and message back and forth."

For carriers already convinced that a form of communications service will be a marketing advantage, there are two possible routes. The first is to go for a relatively basic service that will allow passengers to make mobile calls, send SMS messages and e-mails via personal devices like Blackberrys (using Inmarsat's L-band satellites). This lower-cost option could be more attractive for short-haul players. The second choice, generally for longer-haul travel, is a full-blown high-speed service giving travellers the chance to surf the net and access company intranets (using Ku-band satellites or an air-to-ground network in the US).

The gradual yet inevitable march towards connectivity has placed the major inflight entertainment manufacturers on high alert. Conscious that a growing number of passengers already rely on their own portable devices for entertainment, Panasonic and Thales are both playing active roles in advancing airborne connectivity, while developing increasingly sophisticated solutions to ensure installed IFE systems will not be made redundant.

There is no doubt that the groundwork has been laid to support in-flight connectivity. In June 2007, OnAir, established by SITA and Airbus, received European Aviation Safety Authority certification for its airborne cellular equipment, following successful tests by Airbus earlier in the year. A trial of rival Arinc/Telenor joint venture AeroMobile's data service onboard a Qantas Airways 767-200 proved so successful that the Australian carrier agreed to extend it past an initial three-month term.

For both providers, technological constraints did not deter formal entry into service. A picocell system has long been the solution to ensuring that mobile phones on aircraft operate at minimum power. Rather, telecoms approvals from individual countries took longer than anyone expected, says OnAir. With most of these now firmly in place, On-Air's offering, which is supported by Inmarsat's new satellite communications system SwiftBroadband, is poised to be trialled by Air France, followed by the UK's bmi and TAP Portugal. Launch customer Ryanair rolls out the service across 25 ­aircraft in the first ­quarter of 2008.

Also on the cusp of offering mobile phone usage is Emirates, which had hoped to commence Aero­Mobile's service on board a Boeing 777 in January 2007 but is now readying for an early 2008 launch. "This is not something you can hurry...we just want it to be done right," says Emirates vice-president for passenger communications and visual ­services, Patrick Brannelly.

A pioneer in onboard connectivity, Emirates already provides access to seat-back dial-up e-mail and SMS communications. In 2004, the carrier adopted Tenzing narrowband e-mail for its ultra long-haul A340-500s (Tenzing later became part of the OnAir joint venture). AeroMobile's offering, supported by the existing Inmarsat "Classic" Aero and Swift64 satcoms, will allow Emirates passengers to use their mobile phones in exactly the same way they do on the ground to send and receive text messages and voice calls. Pricing is expected to be comparable to international roaming rates on the ground.

When Emirates starts introducing its latest 777s early in 2008 passengers will be able to use their mobile phones and other personal devices. "That's what everybody really wants now - to be able to use their Blackberry and SMS," says Brannelly.

AeroMobile director of marketing David Coiley stresses, however, that voice services are equally important: "You might want to text the guy who is going to pick you up at the airport, e-mail colleagues at work and speak to your family." Offering only a subset of that will not meet all the communication needs of passengers, he says. AeroMobile recently identified Saudi Arabian Airlines as its ­second customer. Coiley reveals that the firm has secured nine customers.

Still waiting to connect

Widespread deployment of broadband services via Ku-band satellites is likely to take longer than implementation of services for cellular phone devices. Boeing dropped its highly capitalised Connexion service (which used Ku-band satellites) just over a year ago, citing a lack of demand. Keen to avoid selecting another unsustainable service, former Connexion by Boeing customers have been slow to decide on a replacement.

One such carrier, Japan Airlines, will this year remove from its Boeing widebodies the Mitsubishi Electric antenna that supports Connexion, as it explores broadband connectivity options "similar to" Connexion. "We are currently implementing a premium customer strategy aimed at providing high-yield business passengers with premium products and services which help strengthen the overall competitiveness of our airline in the ­market," says JAL. "Healthy demand existed for an in-flight connectivity service when we first launched [Connexion] on our aircraft. That demand still exists. Offering in-flight connectivity is therefore an essential element for any airline wishing to provide its customers with the very best in-flight service."

The Asian carrier and other former Connexion users have a wide array of Ku-band solutions from which to choose. Arinc, US firm Row 44 and a teaming of ViaSat and T-Mobile have thrown their hats into the ring. So too has Panasonic, which is offering its so-called ­eXconnect service using Starling Advanced Communication's Ku-band antenna system. But Panasonic also is not excluding itself from the lower specification L-band sphere. AeroMobile is a partner in eXconnect. The relationship with Panasonic is "a preferred reseller", says Coiley, noting that the firm is "able to work with all airline customers regardless of their IFE complement".

Some industry players see continued flaws in a Ku-band-based business case, citing coverage issues and challenges associated with leasing transponders. But Panasonic believes the economics for providing Ku-band solutions are significantly better than when ­Connexion was on offer.

"We now have solved the network and coverage issues so as to provide a global solution," says Panasonic director of strategic product marketing David Bruner. "We have also solved the size and weight issues so as to provide a solution for all commercial aircraft including regional jets. Finally, the cost of the system is now relatively small, making this service feasible to even the most thrifty of the low-cost carriers."

New Ku-band solutions could gain an initial foothold in the USA. Alaska Airlines has agreed to a spring trial of Row 44's system on board a 737NG. Passengers with WiFi-enabled devices will have high-speed access to the internet, e-mail, virtual private networks and stored in-flight entertainment content. Based on the trial's outcome, plans are in place to equip the carrier's 114-strong fleet.

American ready to go live

But a satellite pipe is not the only option for US operators. Colorado-based AirCell will offer wireless broadband service over an air-to-ground network, which it touts as a lower-cost option to competing satellite-based models. American Airlines is readying a trial of AirCell's system as early as the first quarter, and intends to initially equip its transcontinental 767-200ERs. Should the trial prove a success, American intends to roll out the ­service to its domestic fleet.

The intention at American is to offer internet to passengers with a couple of caveats. "AirCell is going to block VOIP [voice over internet protocol] and also very high bandwidth utilisation applications so that there is a DSL-like experience across the customer base," says American manager of in-flight communications and technology Doug Backelin.

Customers will be able to access the service and pay for it through portal pages, which will be designed to give both American and AirCell a branding presence. "AirCell is responsible for setting the price. They are doing quite a bit of research on that," says Backelin.

While AirCell believes that Ku-band connectivity providers will find difficulty offering airlines "a compelling and appealing model" in the USA, the Colorado-based company is fully aware that carriers such as American will require a satellite solution for overseas flights, says AirCell senior vice-president airline solutions Fran Phillips.

"We are technology agnostic. We believe air-to-ground technology is the best technology and most economic to cover a large land mass like the United States. We see Ku-band as the only choice for over water flights and many of our customers, like American, fly internationally so we have to be looking at all solutions," she says.

US start-up Virgin America, meanwhile, has committed to a full fleet deployment of AirCell's system on board its A320-family ­aircraft. Virgin America says it will offer broadband services on flights "sometime" in 2008. Significantly, passengers will not only be able to access the internet through their WiFi-enabled devices, but also through Virgin America's "Red" seat-back IFE system, which is supported by Panasonic hardware and ­custom-developed software.

This approach is being pursued as part of a larger programme to drive ancillary revenue at the carrier. Passengers can already order food, beverages and movies over the IFE system, and will shortly be able to order a variety of upscale items. Connectivity services will also be charged in the main cabin. "In 2000, there was an absolute requirement to have ­internet connections in hotel rooms. It is going to be just like that in aircraft cabins, domestic and internationally," predicts Virgin America director of in-flight entertainment and ­partnerships Charles Ogilvie.

"Passengers can't afford to be disconnected in planes. You will not see every single seat with a 'Chatty Kathy', chronic cell phone user, but you will see someone doing VPN at the office, or sending out of a couple of e-mails. We're trying to make our initial offering, as well as our product roadmap, coincide with the needs of our guests as well as the ­capability of our partners."

Tom Douramakos, chief executive of onboard retail specialist GuestLogix, says Virgin America "is a good example of where the industry is heading". Airlines can harness connectivity to create new revenue streams, especially if they offer internet in a controlled environment. Passengers could, for example, book a limo from the airport, make hotel reservations or buy tickets in-flight and the airline could get a cut of the sales, he says.

Using installed IFE in tandem with connectivity is the sort of vision that IFE manufacturers are eager for airlines to embrace, particularly at a time when passengers have been increasingly bringing their own portable entertainment devices on board aircraft, including iPods, smart phones, portable media players and game devices. "I think it's clearly evident on domestic US airlines and other European and Asian airlines that people are bringing and leveraging and planning their own IFE entertainment far in advance of day of departure," says IFE and connectivity consultant David Gasper.

Plug and play

Manufacturers are already developing advanced interactive platforms that will allow new technologies to be introduced on a plug-and-play basis, and accommodate advertising to help airlines monetise the cabin.

"If the aircraft has IFE, the passenger will wish to interface their portable device to the system," says Panasonic's Bruner. "If the aircraft does not have IFE then the passenger will wish to have connectivity and possibly in-seat power. We believe airlines will employ both models. However, the common link is communication as a requirement on all aircraft."

Rival Thales firmly believes that traditional IFE services, such as audio and video on demand, will continue to be the primary service that passengers seek out on board aircraft. But passengers also "want to spend a portion of their trip having access to connectivity", says Thales head of IFE Alan Pellegrini.

Thales envisions passenger services "as a combination of the IFE on board and what the passenger brings on board", says Pellegrini. Whichever medium is chosen, the connectivity race is on as carriers roll out their preferred solutions during 2008 and beyond.