AeroMobile is on the cusp of a new era of growth, as a raft of tier one airlines prepare to bring the Telenor subsidiary's eXPhone in-flight mobile connectivity solution to their fleets.
To date, in the commercial sector AeroMobile's GSM system, which allows passengers to send and receive voice calls and text messages, has been fitted to 87 Emirates aircraft and a single Malaysian Airlines aircraft. Installation of the firm's mobile data service on Emirates has also begun. Eighty-four Emirates aircraft that are fitted with Inmarsat's higher-bandwidth SwiftBroadband solution or Swift64 will receive the AeroMobile GPRS offering.
But beyond its work with long-standing client Emirates, 2011 is poised to "definitely be a year of progress for us. It's the year where we're putting a lot of new aircraft into operation," AeroMobile CEO Pal Bjordal told ATI and Flightglobal yesterday at the firm's Crawley, UK headquarters.
Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and SAS - which have also signed on as customers of AeroMobile partner Panasonic Avionics' Ku-band satellite-based eXConnect high-speed Internet solution - are among the growing list of carriers readying to offer eXPhone via Ku this year.
Also in 2011 Virgin Atlantic and V Australia will start offering eXPhone via SwiftBroadband, while Cathay Pacific and its Dragonair subsidiary are looking to launch eXConnect and eXPhone with Ku pipes on their full fleets in 2012. Sources tell ATI and Flightglobal that Gulf Air has also inked a deal to offer eXConnect and eXphone on its aircraft.
"This is probably the year we're moving from being a technological experiment to becoming a business that proves our future existence because what we are doing now is we have an installation plan which involves seven additional airlines [including some undisclosed customers], and most of these installs are [operated over] Ku-band satellites while others are via SwiftBroadband," says Bjordal.
Of the communications pipes available today, high-speed Ku is the best suited for giving passengers in the air a connected experience akin to their at-home experience, according to Bjordal. "Currently, there is only one real high-speed satcom and that's Ku. SwiftBroadBand is much, much better than [its predecessor] Swift64, which itself is better than Classic satcom, but for widebody aircraft, to provide a good [mobile data] service throughout the cabin, Ku is the only satcom today able to provide enough capacity to do so. And we're the only provider that has this today."
AeroMobile strongly believes that passengers require the same type of connectivity on board aircraft as they are accustomed to receiving on the ground, "which means you have a variety of methods to connect to the Internet, one being mobile Internet [and] the other being Wi-Fi. Large screen devices often hook up through Wi-Fi. Small screen devices often hook up through mobile Internet. Having the same type of connectivity, and not restricting it to Wi-Fi, we believe is essential for the passenger to perceive this as a good service," says Bjordal.
He adds: "People don't want to change their user patterns. When you're using the iPhone on the cellular network, you want to continue doing that. A lot of people don't even know how to switch on their Wi-Fi on cellular systems. There has been a lot of talk of how Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity will compete against each other. I don't think that is the case at all. It will heighten the communication on board the aircraft."
Inmarsat is looking to provide a superfast Ka-band satellite-supported service, called Global Xpress, in the 2014/15 timeframe. AeroMobile says it is "agnostic" as to which pipeline it hooks into. "I know that others are talking about Ka-band, but that will take quite a few years before it's a real offerable product in the airline industry. When that becomes a pipeline, we'll provide a sufficiently good service for our industry. We'll be on that as well," says Bjordal.
He notes, however, that together Panasonic and AeroMobile today are able to provide full Wi-Fi and GSM/GPRS over Ku, and forthcoming 3G mobile service. "Moving into fourth generation mobile activity, you definitely need access to a good pipe to provide that service. That is why we're now focusing on the fact that we're on Ku-band now. It's the highest capacity connection you can have today, which enables us to provide a better service, including quicker mobile data."
AeroMobile competes with Airbus/SITA joint venture OnAir in the in-flight mobile connectivity space. However, other would-be competitors are emerging. Days before the Aircraft Interiors Expo begins in Hamburg, a company called Peryphon Telecom Electronic Industries has announced plans to offer a in-flight GSM system to airlines.
"We have combined the experience of the leading companies in the field of new generation in-flight communication with practical in-service successful implementations as well as making use of talented Israeli resources, to provide a reliable service at the most cost-effective price," says Peryphon in a statement.
AeroMobile, meanwhile, is finding that it is now mainly securing contracts "where we have fleet-wide deployment. We do not find anymore that there is a need for trial periods with AeroMobile's services. Carriers understand that we're here for the duration of this business," says Bjordal.
"If you look back to the early history of this business, we saw mobile data had small incremental revenue, but the whole development in the mobile industry now confirms that mobile data is a driver, or call it the killer application that is really now taking a lot of capacity and getting a lot of active users," he adds.
See Flightglobal's one-on-one video interview with Pal Bjordal here: