As Emirates prepares to introduce the world’s first onboard cellphone service, BRENDAN GALLAGHER looks forward to the next step for passenger connectivity
Before the year is out, Emirates could be the first airline in the world to offer an onboard cellphone service to its passengers. What’s more, the initiative could give the Dubai-based carrier a flying start in the event of a future decision to provide broadband Internet connectivity as well.
Emirates has been working with service provider AeroMobile for nearly two years and is poised to start rolling out the capability across its Airbus A330/A340 and Boeing 777 fleets following a long and painstaking airworthiness certification campaign with EASA and the British CAA.
AeroMobile’s aircraft equipment comprises a miniature GSM base station called a picocell, leaky-feeder cable antennas running the length of the cabin to handle signals to and from passenger phones, and the cabin radio-frequency management unit (CRFMU), which ensures that the phones cannot directly and disruptively access ground cellular networks.
The picocell itself is able to command the phones to operate at a tiny fraction of their normal power output, ruling out any possibility of interference with aircraft systems, and the cabin crew will have a control panel with which to switch the system on and off, and command it to operate only in email and text-messaging mode during quiet times.
The air-to-ground link for the AeroMobile system – and that of its Airbus/SITA-backed rival OnAir – is provided by Inmarsat L-band satellite communications. So far AeroMobile has used the original Inmarsat Classic Aero system and the more recent 64kbit/sec Swift 64 for its airworthiness and trials work – the company is coming to the end of a successful evaluation aboard a Qantas Boeing 767 flying domestic routes.
But three weeks ago London-based Inmarsat announced the commercial availability of a new offering that AeroMobile and OnAir plan to use as the basis of an additional range of broadband services that will include Internet and corporate network access from passenger laptops and other wireless devices, and via the in-seat entertainment system.
This is SwiftBroadband, offering up to 432kbit/sec of always-on IP connectivity per channel, and capable of being boosted to even higher data rates by techniques such as channel bonding and data acceleration. SwiftBroadband’s particular strengths include the fact that it can be added in the form of a simple box-swap or even as a software load to the Inmarsat installations already aboard most of the world’s long-haul airliners. Half a dozen avionics manufacturers are now bringing SwiftBroadband avionics to market: they include EMS Satcom, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Thales and Thrane & Thrane.
The new service opens up for the airlines the prospect of a workable successor to the very capable but ultimately uneconomical Connexion by Boeing, which closed down at the end of last year. Connexion was based on the use of leased transponders on Ku-band satellites belonging to several different operators such as Intelsat and AES-Americom and also employed for a wide variety of other communications services. Its failure seemed for a while to discredit Ku-band solutions, but now two new and credible aspiring providers have emerged.
The more familiar of the two is inflight entertainment system market leader Panasonic Avionics, which is already active in passenger communications through a collaboration with AeroMobile. Panasonic can host the service provider’s cellphone software on its IFE servers, and it is acting as the prime retailer for the AeroMobile onboard equipment package.
But the Californian-based company is also keen to put money on Ku-band, with its bandwidth advantages over Inmarsat L-band, and has teamed with satellite operators, avionics manufacturers and global WiFi service provider Boingo to develop an offering that it now plans to introduce next summer with one as yet unnamed airline.
The other contender is US start-up Row 44, which plans to launch flight trials before the end of the year and to carry out an in-service evaluation with Alaska Airlines in the first half of next year with a view to securing installations across the US carrier’s whole fleet.
Panasonic and Row 44 are aiming to put right two of the things that laid Connexion low – its heavy, bulky aircraft installation, which weighed a total of 800lb, and a business plan that saw it paying top dollar for satellite capacity. The two companies are aiming to benefit from antenna technology that has moved on significantly in the last few years, and intend to drive a much harder bargain with the satellite operators, buying no more capacity than they need at any given time.
Compared with the Inmarsat community they enjoy a distinct advantage in the form of the inherently superior data rates offered by Ku-band – megabits versus hundreds of kilobits. But that could be offset to some degree by the Web front ends now being developed by AeroMobile and OnAir, which are designed to push users towards more bandwidth-economical ways of accessing email and the Internet. Ku-band’s bigger data pipe also comes at the cost of more complex and expensive antenna technology.
When it comes to geographical coverage, neither the Inmarsat nor the Ku-band services will be available worldwide to begin with. But SwiftBroadband, currently accessible across two-thirds of the globe, will be extended to the Pacific following the planned launch of the third Inmarsat-4 satellite in the middle of next year. Panasonic is talking of an initial service extending from North America across the Atlantic to Europe, while Row 44 wants to open for business in North America in the first quarter of next year before reaching out to Europe in the third quarter and adding Atlantic coverage in the fourth.
In-flight passenger communications have had a chequered history ever since the introduction of the first terrestrially based phone services in North America in the 1980s. They all failed in the end, the first generation of Inmarsat satellite phone offerings proved too costly to attract mass usage, and Connexion was a victim of technological immaturity when it tried to bring the Internet to the cabin.
But now all the signs are that the right equipment and business models are coinciding with a rising public appetite for connectivity to create the conditions for long-term success. Whether the Inmarsat camp or the Ku-band providers will come to dominate is still anybody’s guess. But the former does enjoy an early advantage in the form of customer commitments.
While Panasonic and Row 44 so far muster just two airlines between them, AeroMobile’s initial cellphone service has attracted Emirates plus a further five unnamed carriers. Rival OnAir has signed Ryanair, Kingfisher, AirAsia of Malaysia and China’s Shenzhen Airlines and has trials planned with Air France, bmi of the UK and TAP Portugal. And there could be more to come soon – AeroMobile says it expects airline commitments, including some possibly from the Middle East, to reach as many as 15 by the end of the year.