A whole new breed of in-flight entertainment systems is set to enter service: the goal, complete connectivity between the cabin and the outside world

Not that many years ago, passengers could board an aircraft knowing they could not be disturbed by the outside world until they reached their destination. Any information they needed to get to colleagues, family or friends on the ground would just have to wait until touchdown.

Then came satellite-based in-flight telephones which, although prohibitively expensive to many, meant that if you had to get in contact with the ground, you could - albeit often at $10/min. Phones were then followed by the in-flight fax, although that failed to make much impression on airline passengers.

But now the revolution in real-time in-flight connection to the world below has started, and the revolutionary is in-flight e-mail - or at least that's what e-mail/internet service providers and some airlines pioneering the services would have us believe.

Keen to be part of that revolution, the three major in-flight entertainment (IFE) hardware manufacturers - Matsushita Avionics Systems, Rockwell Collins and Thales Avionics In-Flight Systems - are all about to put into service IFE platforms that will support the new connectivity services, from the likes of Boeing Connexion and Tenzing, and meet the perceived need for passengers to stay connected at 35,000ft.

Things move quickly in the world of IFE and although it was just over a year ago that Matsushita launched its latest hardware, the System 3000 with Singapore Airlines (SIA), the manufacturer is now readying its System 3000i (i for internet) for entry into service.

Connectivity options

The System 3000i will offer everything the System 3000 does - audio- and video-on-demand (A/VOD) throughout the aircraft, countless audio and video channels, games, news, information services and shopping, all under the passenger's control - plus broadband and narrowband connectivity, including e-mail, web browsing and short messaging service (SMS).

Initial deliveries of System 3000i are due to start to seat manufacturers for installation in October/November, with the first airline customer expected to be flying with the system next April, says Craig Depner, Matsushita's widebody product line manager. EVA Air, Emirates, Northwest Airlines and SIA have all selected System 3000i to equip new Airbus aircraft.

EVA will outfit 11 A330s, Emirates has six firm orders for A340s, Northwest will mark its entry into interactive IFE with a firm order to equip 24 A330s, and SIA, which has traditionally been one of the first airlines to commit to every Matsushita interactive IFE system, will equip five A340s.

The manufacturer also has an order to equip 10 aircraft for an unnamed Boeing aircraft operator. The airline is expected to be announced at this month's World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) show in Seattle, Washington.

EVA is likely to be the launch operator next year, says Depner.

The biggest difference between System 3000i and System 3000 is laptop connectivity at the seat via an ethernet port connected to an RJ45 jack for each passenger. Passengers will be able to plug their laptop computers into the system to access in-flight e-mail/internet services. The manufacturer is also in talks with service providers Boeing and Tenzing to incorporate their services into the seatback system.

Matsushita is already offering SMS via its seatback systems. SIA launched the service on its Boeing 747s and 777s this month, using Matsushita's Inflight Communicator software and Inmarsat satellite communications provided by SITA. The service is initially available in send mode only, with reply functionality to be added later.

This month Virgin Atlantic Airways is introducing in-seat SMS on its 747-400s and new A340-600 in a programme with Inmarsat service provider ARINC, Matsushita and Tenzing.

Upgrading from System 3000 to the internet version is simple, says Matsushita - the digital seat electronics box is replaced with an internet version and standard ethernet connectors are installed.

"The difficult part is to add functionality but without growing the system in terms of size or weight," says Depner. Processor speed is up 68% compared to the System 3000, while memory is increased by 75%, helping to support more complicated applications, including more advanced games and menus, says Depner. Weight is up slightly - by 3% - however, but size and power requirements are the same. Matsushita is already working to reduce weight and size, including the use of lightweight cabling and reducing the number of seatboxes.

Depner declines to comment on the all-important reliability/availability targets for the system. This figure is part of the manufacturer's contractual agreement with its customers, but the system will bring speed and interface improvements, he says.

System 3000i will allow a whole host of new IFE applications, says Depner, but he concedes Matsushita does not necessarily know what these are yet in the fast-moving IFE sector. The system will also allow existing services to be improved, for example shopping, and will also support cabin crew operational services.

A380 targeted

Matsushita is already working on a new platform to meet the needs of the ultra-large A380. The 555-seat A380 and its entry-into-service date of 2006 is the target for Matsushita's next-generation system. It will have an ethernet backbone and smaller and lighter seatboxes to meet the entertainment and information needs of more than 500 passengers, says Depner.

Rockwell Collins' system for the widebody market, including the A380, for some years to come will be the Enhanced Total Entertainment System (eTES). ETES brings together the best of Rockwell's earlier interactive system, TES, with the software of the former Sony Trans Com P@ssport interactive seatback IFE system, which Rockwell acquired with its purchase of the former Sony business in 2000.

P@ssport had secured just three airline customers - Air Canada, South African Airways and US Airways - but was popular with them, particularly because it is Microsoft Windows-based, allowing any Windows applications to be incorporated rather than requiring its own unique software. Rockwell's TES platform had proved much more successful in terms of orders - flying on more than 400 aircraft - but had struggled initially with reliability and to deliver A/VOD.

"We didn't want to invent new technology with eTES," says Dan Bergen, director of product marketing - which is why the manufacturer has incorporated modem technology from the cable television industry and the Windows operating system. ETES uses quadrature amplitude modulation signal modulation and the broadband cable industry's data over cable service interface specifications in its ethernet network, all of which allows it to provide data delivery bandwidth up to 1.6Gb/s. "Far more bandwidth than we need today," says Bergen.

The system has Windows-based servers and clients, and Windows CE.NET provides Internet Explorer for navigation. "One of the benefits that Microsoft brings to the table is the tonnes and tonnes of applications," says Bergen.

ETES can deliver MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 A/VOD to every seat, with no seat limit, as well as the standard games, information services, shopping and laptop connectivity via ethernet port at every seat. The digital media server can store 80 full-length feature films that can be accessed at any time by all passengers, and airlines can download a 2h film onto the system in 1min.

One of the major drivers for eTES development was connectivity, he adds. The system is compatible with Connexion and Tenzing - Rockwell owns 15% of the latter  - and has wireless capability for laptops with wireless modems. The system can support these services via the laptopor the seatback.

Apart from connectivity, the main difference between eTES and its predecessor is a "substantial improvement in drive capacity, with the ability to store more", says Bergen. "The head-end is reduced, with a full aircraft with VOD at 330 seats having a two-thirds reduction in the number of boxes in the head-end. The real benefits are that it is smaller, lighter, has connectivity, the largest bandwidth capability in the industry and improved graphics." And all at the same cost as its predecessor.

Processing power

As well as being 30% smaller than TES, eTES has much increased processing power - from TES's 40MHz PowerPC to eTES's 266MHz Pentium-class processor - while memory increases from 16Mb to 64Mb.

ETES could scale up to as many as 1,200 passengers and the manufacturer is discussing with Airbus its offerability on the A380, says Bergen, although some modifications to the system would be needed, including changing seatbox size. 

So far Rockwell has three "significant orders" from three "major carriers", says Bergen. The manufacturer declines to identify its customers, which are installing the equipment as part of major cabin upgrades. None of the launch carriers is US, however, with that market being hit particularly hard by the post-11 September downturn, says Bergen. One of the customers is believed to be Lufthansa, which will be the first airline to trial Boeing's Connexion services.

The manufacturer has started shipping equipment to its launch customer and the eTES system will be flying in service before the end of this year, says Bergen.

Thales's i-Series hardware is expected to be flying with launch customer Japan Air Lines (JAL) even sooner, with installations at JAL already under way. Thales also has three other customers for i-Series - UK charter airline MyTravel, Middle East Airlines and leasing company Debis. Total orders for the system stand at 60 aircraft, says Lori Krans, director of business development. The system is also installed on Airbus's A318 demonstrator.

I-Series is offerable on Airbus standard and widebody aircraft, with Boeing offer ability expected by the end of the year. "We will be addressing both the line-fit and retrofit commercial markets and are building solutions for the corporate jet market as well," Krans adds.

"I-Series is the next generation cabin system," says Krans, and completely different to its predecessor, the m-Series. Whereas the m-Series was strictly designed for entertainment, i-Series integrates communications, laptop power and entertainment onto a single platform. It offers four levels of functionality that can simultaneously operate on a single aircraft - the i-1000 provides a broadband communications network and laptop power; the i-2000 offers overhead video and in-seat audio; the i-3000 provides in-seat broadcast video and in-seat audio; and the i-4000 is an A/VOD system. Different versions of the system can be installed in different cabin classes.

Increased functionality

The systems can also be installed on both narrow and widebody aircraft and meet the latest ARINC 628 Part 4A industry standards, says Thales. The i-Series "significantly reduces weight and power requirements while increasing functionality", adds Krans. Using a Linux-based, open architecture software platform "maximises use of internet web technology for a rich pool of content possibilities".

I-Series supports Connexion and Tenzing services. "Connectivity can be accessed through the laptop or the i-Series video display," says Krans. "Thales is the pipe from the head end to the seat; Boeing and Tenzing are the pipe from the head end to the ground. An airline needs both systems." 

Thales is forming a new division in order to develop software products and services for i-Series, says Krans. "Thales has built a powerful platform and is now prepared to layer applications onto it," she adds.

With the new generation of seatback, interactive IFE systems preparing for their debut, all it needs now is for connectivity services to prove as popular among passengers as many in the IFE industry are predicting them to be.

Source: Flight International