Wireless IFE continues to challenge suppliers

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Challenges associated with bringing wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems onboard aircraft remain great enough that hardware giants Panasonic and Thales continue to largely focus on wired solutions for new aircraft programmes, including the Airbus A350.

In 2007 Boeing scuppered plans to fit wireless IFE technology to the Boeing 787 due to a number of factors, including a concern that the 802.11n technology's specification had not yet been ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "With the ratification of the 802.11n spec, this challenge has been overcome," says Panasonic director of product marketing Cedric Rhoads.

One of the lessons that Panasonic learned during the 787 wireless IFE project, however, was that ultimately the weight savings in moving to a wireless distribution architecture was not realized as originally envisioned. "The concern for us was that the value of wireless was not there and it represented a very big trade-off in bandwidth, and thus capability", says Rhoads.

That trade-off with functionality remains, he says. "It's just not an appropriate solution given the expectation our customers have expressed to us. Today's technology does not offer sufficient bandwidth, especially for large widebodies, to support wireless on-demand distribution."

Thales chief engineer Ken Brady agrees with this assessment. He says the manufacturer's IFE product has to be scalable to support large aircraft. "Today, we have on a 787 a system which will have the capability of providing 6 gigabits of data to the airplane. Wireless [IFE] today, even with 802.11n, really doesn't get close to that. That to me means that if you choose to do wireless, you're certainly providing less potential capability."

Adds Brady: "To do it in live form, I know of no interactive technology that meets the requirement."

Both manufacturers have not completely ruled out wireless IFE solutions. "Would we consider wireless? Yes. But we need to properly weigh the requirements against what the technology can produce," says Brady.

The subject came back into focus with the recent announcement that Airbus has commissioned Bluebox Avionics to provide its wireless system for inclusion in the A380 demonstration mock-up in Hamburg. The test could assist Airbus in deciding if the technology makes sense for offerability on its A350. However, Airbus has not yet commented on this.

"We believe that Airbus is not necessarily focused on a wireless IFE solution as much as they are on having an entry-level solution that is easier for Airbus to integrate and deliver," says Rhoads.

That solution would target the types of customers that fall into low-fares or "pay-for-service" models.

Bluebox joint managing director Rick Stuart admits that, for content load, wireless is slower than wired "but it's only an issue if you haven't taken into account a strategy to alleviate that problem".

He says traditional players are still using the same strategies that they've been using for 15 years. "Why should IFE be avionics based? It's media. It's far more intrinsically linked to the IT world, to computers. Our philosophy is that: 'surely it must be aligned to that industry'."

While Stuart cannot discuss the parameters or criteria goals of the A380 mock-up testing due to confidentiality with Airbus, he says a four-year time frame is "easily" enough time to bring wireless IFE to market. Airbus A350 deliveries are expected to begin in 2013.