As in-flight connectivity rapidly gains acceptance throughout the airline industry, Thales has thrown down the gauntlet to "challenge anyone" to match its list of customers for connectivity solutions.
Thales's connectivity strategy is centred on Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband aeronautical service over L-band satellites. While Ku-band-based solutions appear to attract more interest from media that "perhaps see that as kind of a sexier technology because it offers more bandwidth", they are not globally available, says Alan Pellegrini, general manager of Thales's California-based in-flight business.
SwiftBroadband technology, on the other hand, is "here today and global in nature, which makes it very compelling for airlines that are flying routes that are not just regionally oriented, but span multiple regions, and having that kind of coverage all the way up to the poles on both sides and down is extremely important," says Pellegrini.
These considerations are being weighed heavily by airlines "and that's why you can see there is about 17 customers" for SwiftBroadband-supported connectivity, be it used for basic cockpit solutions or the Thales TopConnect solution with GSM, which is offered in partnership with Airbus/Sita joint venture OnAir. Thales is also now working on an integrated in-flight entertainment system that harnesses this technology.
"Thales has been quite clear - our strategy has been to focus on the systems side and the integration side and leave the service to service providers like OnAir," says Pellegrini.
"I think if you added up the number of Ku-band customers today it's a far smaller list. So we're not trying to suggest that technology isn't something that might be important for the future, or may not have a particular niche, but we do think that perhaps it's a little more in the limelight than SwiftBroadband, even though to us it's a very feasible, here today, practical global technology that we're now deploying."
Thales's chief rival in the IFE sector, Panasonic, is travelling a different path to in-flight connectivity. The company has signed up five undisclosed customers for its Ku-band-based eXConnect offering. Former Connexion by Boeing customer Lufthansa is understood to have selected eXConnect for its overseas flights.