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IFE: Broadband believers

A number of hopefuls are emerging to replace Boeing's Connexion in-flight service, with Panasonic at the front of the queue. What makes them think they can succeed?

When Boeing pulled the plug on its Connexion broadband in-flight communication and entertainment services at the end of 2006 due to lack of demand, many thought that would put an end to broadband ambitions. But broadband hopefuls are lining up to offer global services in the belief that they will succeed where Boeing failed.

Panasonic is undeterred by Boeing's experience. The company, better known for its in-flight entertainment system hardware, was the first to step into the broadband ring. Partners in its eXconnect programme are Intelsat, providing the Ku-band satellites Israeli company Starling, supplying the aircraft antenna iDirect with the satellite modem wireless network company Boingo Wireless and AeroMobile for the mobile phone capability.

Panasonic plans to launch flight testing in the fourth quarter of this year, followed by a phased roll-out from the first to the fourth quarter of 2008, says David Bruner, director of strategic product marketing.

The emerging broadband services are set to be a major talking point at this year's World Airline Entertainment Association show in Toronto, Canada, from 17-20 September.

Services initially offered will comprise wi-fi connectivity enabling internet and email mobile telephone service providing voice, SMS and GPRS (general packet radio service) and a broadband portal of content and services. "We expect to be adding to the service continually," he says, with the next major addition expected to be Internet Protocol TV. Services will initially be available via passenger devices, although the manufacturer's IFE systems have been designed to support such integration.

Initial pricing for long-range international flights is $10.95 for an hour and $21.95 for the whole flight. Panasonic will sell the equipment to the airline and will provide a retail service to the passengers through its partners. "Panasonic has reduced the cost of such a sophisticated system to make it quite affordable and a simple upgrade to our IFE system," says Bruner.

Panasonic says it is in negotiations with several airlines, declining to comment further. The manufacturer is confident it will succeed where Boeing failed, for a number of reasons. "The design of the network is several times more efficient, allowing Panasonic to use much less satellite transponder resources," says Bruner. The aircraft equipment required is also considerably lighter than Connexion's, resulting in less drag, and is also less expensive.

"These factors will allow more airlines to install the system on more aircraft allowing a broader base of users which is very important to the service economics," he says. Panasonic has reduced its own costs in the venture by bringing in partners. Panasonic acknowledges that Boeing's work in the field has smoothed its path, particularly in areas such as gaining regulatory approvals.

Thales is also set to follow its IFE hardware competitor into the broadband market, although it is only at the early stages with details yet to be revealed. "Thales sees broadband services as a very important part of our offering and we are deep into the planning of our solution," says the manufacturer.

New names have also emerged, including California-based Row 44, which is working with Hughes Network Systems to deliver internet and email services, and later in-flight TV, via passengers' wi-fi compatible devices through the Hughes Ku-band satellite system.

Under the skin

The on-board system will comprise a lightweight, low-profile antenna four line replaceable units under the aircraft skin and one or more cabin wireless access points, with a total system weight of less than 70kg (150lb), claims Row 44.

The service provider plans to offer services in North America in the first half of next year, followed by Europe and transatlantic service later that year. The order and timing of additional regions is yet to be decided, says Wendy Campanella, marketing and business development manager. The company has an unnamed airline signed up for a North American trial with a Boeing 737 before a full fleet roll-out.

Row 44 plans to offer wireless internet, mobile telephony and IPTV in a phased roll-out, starting with narrowbody aircraft in North America. It also plans to services for widebody aircraft later next year, with IPTV following in 2009.

Row 44 believes it will succeed where Connexion failed primarily on cost issues. "Because Boeing built a custom network they had high operating costs. We leverage a network that is already successfully deployed and operational for other applications, making our costs significantly lower," says Campanella. "Secondly, the size and weight of Boeing's system made it impractical for narrowbody aircraft, thus it could not be used for a fleetwide solution," she adds.

In addition, Row 44 will benefit from much greater bandwidth. "We have a bi-directional 81Mbit/s for data and phone support along with a uni-directional 45Mbit/s stream for IPTV applications, both supported through the same antenna," says Campanella.

Then there is the mysterious AirStellar, with a website that proclaims passenger connectivity and global capability. "AirStellar brings together leaders in the aircraft, wireless internet, cellular communications and satellite industries to deliver a continuous communications and entertainment service to passenger jets," it says. Beyond that AirStellar is remaining tight-lipped. Its name hasbeen linked, however, to numerous parties,including satellite companies Intelsat and SES-Americom, satellite systemdesigner Ellipso, global wireless service provider WorldCell and broadband access solutions company iDirect technologies, among others.

Time will tell whether airlines and their passengers are ready for a broadband world.




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