Panasonic sees 'massive' demand for in-flight connectivity

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(Corrects story to note that Cathay, and not ANA, has ordered eXConnect)

Panasonic Avionics is fielding a staggering number of requests for proposals (RFPs) for airborne connectivity, as airlines - both big and small - realise that keeping passengers connected to the ground during flight has become the cost of doing business.

"We believe that virtually every airline in the world realises it needs connectivity. They're asking, 'How do I do it and how fast do I do it' but right now we have RFPs for over 1,500 aircraft and we believe there is a major decision, maybe two, happening every single month, and so you're talking about 200 or 300 airplanes per month getting committed so it's massive," Panasonic Avionics vice-president, global communications services David Bruner revealed to Air Transport Intelligence and Flightglobal this week during an interview near the company's headquarters in Lake Forest, California.

US in-flight connectivity service provider Gogo's success in securing multiple airline customers for its an air-to-ground (ATG)-based solution in the United States, and Row 44's deal to bring Ku-band satellite-based connectivity to Southwest Airlines' fleet, helped to kick start interest in connectivity in other parts of the world.

Unlike Gogo, however, Panasonic has focused its efforts on providing in-flight high-speed Internet via Ku satellites on overseas flights because, as a leading provider of embedded in-flight entertainment systems on widebody aircraft, such a plan fits its model.

"We said, 'Let's do the hardest thing first, which is offer a solution that flies anywhere in the world even across the equator'," said Bruner.

Panasonic Avionics CEO Paul Margis added: "For us connectivity is about the overall experience in the cabin. It wasn't just about connecting laptops. It was also about what you can do with in-flight entertainment, maintenance reporting and telephony when you connect an airplane."

Offering connectivity via a higher bandwidth Ku pipe - versus other lower bandwidth offerings on the market - is core to Panasonic's strategy, which includes offering TV over IP and mobile connectivity. "All of our appetites [for bandwidth] are expanding," noted Bruner.

However, if an airline is interested, the company is willing to provide connected IFE applications - such as social media apps, for instance - using Inmarsat's L-band-based SwiftBroadband [SBB] aeronautical service, which operates at speeds of up to 432 kbps.

"I think that SBB is almost better suited to connected IFE than in the wild because you can manage the experience and get the information transfer without really seeing what the latencies are, what the hourglass is," said Margis.

A former Connexion by Boeing customer Lufthansa late last year relaunched Ku-band connectivity on CBB-fitted aircraft in partnership with Panasonic. The rest of the German carrier's long-haul fleet is being fitted with Panasonic's Ku system, dubbed eXConnect. Mobile connectivity via Ku is also in the cards.

Other customers for eXConnect include Turkish Airlines and Gulf Air, which will come on line in the coming months, as well as Cathay Pacific and SAS.

Panasonic is also understood to be working with Transaero and Japan Airlines. However, the company declined to comment on discussions.