In-Flight Internet Access: Getting Beyond Old Modem Speeds

In-flight Internet (IFI) access has gained traction over the past decade, with advancements facilitated by the expansion of ground- and satellite-based broadband communication capabilities. Each of these technologies pushes the other in appealing to service providers and airlines/operators, which, in turn, will benefit the flying public for years to come.

In order to understand the explosion in the use of IFI, we need to understand what has driven airlines and business aviation operators to expand such services to their passengers. It is not the continuing build out of ground-based and satellite communications services for the aviation market, since these lag the performance of terrestrial network speeds (for good reason, technically), but it is the demands of paying customers that drives this revolution.

Flying (in Economy, at least) is Not Much Fun

Part of the growth of broadband IFI is due to the dissatisfaction with many of the legacy in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, especially on U.S. domestic flights (what little exists on most flights at the major carriers) in commercial aviation. International flights have always had a wider assortment of entertainment for the obvious reasons, but many U.S. airlines fail to invest in much new technology to keep passengers entertained. Economics played a role in this. Now that airlines have begun adding charges for baggage, better seats in economy, checking in earlier and blankets —and if Ryanair gets its way, access to bathrooms and quite possibly standing-room-only sections — passengers are demanding a better flying experience. Better access to entertainment goes a long way to meeting this demand.

For years, travelers have been using their own laptops, DVD and music players and assorted game consoles to pass the time. While few passengers did so initially, in the past decade this bring-your-own-device (BYOD) mindset exploded with the introduction of consumer-friendly tablets, smartphones and newer mobile game consoles. These devices are typically connected via some type of wireless Internet access, which has changed not only the commercial aviation passenger experience, but the retail, work, home, in-car commuting and pretty much any other environment. This pervasive pastime of “always being connected” has taken root in our society due to the access to free WiFi hotspots everywhere. Why should someone in the midst of a five-hour cross-country flight not have entertainment options (especially since there is no choice in the often-unappealing movie shown on the small monitors above the aisle?

Enter the Internet, the great time suck of the last 15 years or so. It presents hours of entertainment and a great way to wile away time.

Not only has the Internet affected world politics, helped topple regimes and old institutions, and ruined many a legacy company which refused to upgrade its products or services to make use of this medium, but for the purposes of this particular article, it is now making it fun to fly again. The Internet and IFI have enabled this transformation, without a great deal of investment by the airlines themselves (due to third parties creating the services they implement). Just like the internet service providers (ISPs), they have leveraged their captive audience to generate new revenue streams, while inviting new service providers to stump up the investment in the communications infrastructure! Just when passengers had given up on enjoying commercial airline service within the U.S., the Internet has come to the rescue (to some degree).

Business jet passengers have a differing story, since many aircraft have had some degree of such capabilities for many years now. The business aviation traveler has a different flying experience than a typical commercial airline passenger, so the expectations in regards to having access to IFI are heightened. Although it is not exactly useful to compare commercial and business jet aviation in-flight Internet usage rates, it is clear that business jet travelers make greater use of Internet and communications access in general. In fact, Mark Fischer of the Greenwich AeroGroup states that, “more and more business jet passengers each day are requesting to stay connected to the Internet in flight, typically handling email, text messages and performing light web browsing.” This slightly contrasts an average commercial airline, which sees a smaller number of passengers making use of this. This is expected to change due to an increasing number of airlines making an investment in IFI now.

This foretells that the greatest growth potential lies in targeting the average commercial airline traveler, due to the sheer untapped (or unserviced) market size this offers. Although most business travelers request to stay connected for business purposes (mostly email and text messages) the average non-business airline passenger requires much more of their Internet experience.

Budget Fare Passengers Help Drive Growth

It can be argued that Apple and Steve Jobs are partly responsible for helping stoke this current trend, due to the general public’s widespread adoption of iPods, iPhones and iPads. Prior to each of the sets of devices emerging, typically only business travelers and technology enthusiasts flew with cumbersome laptops and Blackberry devices. Now we have technophobes using consumer-friendly devices to update their followers about every facet of their day.

Nowadays, people expect to have access to email, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter wherever they go, and will not put up with slow/low-bandwidth connectivity. With a greater volume of BYOD users on flights today, it is expected that access prices should decrease further, especially if airlines and service providers are able to segregate differing types of access (laptop usage versus a phone sending SMS, for example).

Expect prices for IFI to fall further still. In fact, some airlines already offer free access to airline-sponsored shopping sites.

Yelping the Airlines Into Better Service

By providing their passengers with greater choice to pass the time, airlines may be able to raise the level of passenger satisfaction and reduce overall consumer complaints. There may even be an emerging trend among passengers to select flights based on the availability of high-quality IFI. This would indeed be a consumer revolution, something to which the U.S. carriers have been very alert. Customers may actually pay more to fly newer aircraft with high-bandwidth IFI (and newer, more comfortable seats…).

Web sites such as RouteHappy provide the public with a means of comparing the capabilities of each aircraft and other passengers’ experiences. Their unique “Happiness Score” combines information about aircraft quality, amenities and flyer ratings (provided by actual travelers via not only their Web site, but via smartphone and tablet apps, of course). They assemble data about the flight experience, match it to scheduled flights, and rate flights for you.

This builds upon the model of Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and other review-focused Web sites which have helped drive businesses into providing better service (or suffer the fate of the mob turning upon them). The mob rules. History repeats itself.

I mention this to demonstrate how easily passengers are able to influence an airline’s policy today. An unhappy budget traveler can motivate others to complain with a pointedly sharp review. Sooner than you can say “satellite broadband,” the complaint can go viral and cause all sorts of defensive actions from the carrier involved. Aircraft are not being mothballed as a result of a lack of IFI capability, but it’s getting that way. This is how serious IFI has become.

Forcing the Airlines to Upgrade

Many of the original projections for new revenue of IFI systems were most probably driven by what a business traveler would pay to do email, along with a small number of leisure travelers, per flight. These initial projections used per-flight estimated fees which were higher than what many hotels used to charge per day. Once the ‘novelty’ of on-board IFI wore off (and finance departments began questioning the logic of paying $20 to catch-up on a few emails), it became apparent that a wider audience was needed to make these services economically viable.

To appeal to a wider public which was being nickeled-and-dimed for luggage fees and pre-packaged food on board already, airlines needed to provide higher-bandwidth Internet at a lower price. If this sounds familiar, it is. This is the exact same issue that early ISPs faced back in the late 20th century once the business networking market was saturated and they needed to go after the general public to maintain growth. ISPs were forced to provide lower pricing and better customer support in order to reach this larger market. Airlines are experiencing the same paradigm: build services for a narrow customer base which can afford to pay a premium, and then find a way to scale down costs while increasing services to appeal to a much larger, price-sensitive market — a true American way of doing business.

The Future of IFI

This trend in providing better services to customers is not limited to airlines and operators. The aircraft OEMs are now forced to take action as well. Advancements in supporting higher-bandwidth communications to aircraft will continue to drive manufacturers to upgrade their products continually. With communication-led initiatives such as NextGen and SESAR driving aircraft communication needs, and passengers and airline operations centers wanting quicker access to information (for differing reasons), the expectation is that avionics and communications-related solution providers will accelerate product lifecycles. While part of this is driven by an overall generational change in how aircraft operations in an increasingly-crowded airspace needs to be upgraded, the other is due to consumer electronics revolution and passenger expectations.

Customers will reward airlines that invest in modernized products. This drives airlines to expect more of their suppliers.

One such effort to incorporate greater capabilities into aircraft is the recent announcement that Boeing is working with Samsung to develop technologies that improve IFE and communications. Specifically mentioned in the Boeing press release was an interest in pursuing technologies associated with next-generation wireless systems for on-board applications. Due to its cutting-edge product lines, Samsung has broad knowledge of wireless networking in low-power environments (mobile computing), which can be of use addressing optimizing data throughput in a cabin while potentially driving down some costs. Boeing seems to be exploring some novel ways to differentiate itself from third-party offerings from Panasonic and Thales (among other providers) which are also offered on Airbus and most other commercial aircraft.

Airbus has already demonstrated an A320 equipped with an Orange cabin wireless system. Scottish company Bluebox has worked with Airbus to certificate the cabin wireless integration, allowing the crew to override your personal electronic device when making safety announcements.

IFE vendors are also not standing still. One example of this is Panasonic, which recently announced that it is ramping up the capabilities of IFE and communications products/services with an increased broadband capability. Panasonic and Intelsat will create a Ku-band aeronautical network that combines high bandwidth (up to one gigabit per second), and fastest possible data speeds for passengers, with global delivery of uninterrupted live television (directly competing with JetBlue’s LiveTV service). This will be a dedicated network for Panasonics aviation market customers, and promises increased high bandwidth connectivity greatly, up to six times more capacity in key areas of the continental U.S. and across the North Atlantic. This translates into 80 megabits per second (Mbps) per aircraft flying in certain high-traffic areas.

In Europe, Inmarsat is developing Global Xpress. According to the satellite services’ provider, this “will set a new standard for aircraft connectivity, offering high-end users greater bandwidth and much higher data rates in the Ka-band.” The Global Xpress service will be launched in 2013, with full global coverage available by late 2014. This service has been engineered to meet the emerging requirements of the aviation sector and will offer airlines abundant broadband capacity for years to come. While initially being targeted at early adopters of IFE/IFI, airlines, and companies serving high-end business travellers and VIPs, it has the potential to support real-time television feeds.

The battle lines are being drawn for tomorrow’s IFI campaign.

We are seeing not only innovation being introduced in aircraft in-flight connectivity, but in how services will be offered to airlines and passengers from service providers, and how these incorporate into IFE services. All of this is being affected by customers who are becoming accustomed to user-friendly consumer electronics with wireless connectivity to the Internet and demanding such capabilities while traveling. The coming year promises to bring not only greater communications capabilities to the flying public while in flight, but a plethora of apps for smartphones and devices which augment the travel experience as well. The companies and individuals which are able to provide these apps and services will help drive the next generation of air travel to new heights. 

 

John Pawlicki is CEO and principal of OPM Research. He also works with Virtual Security International (VSI), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). Pawlicki has also been part of industry efforts at the ATA and other related groups, and was involved in the effort to define and allow the use of electronic FAA 8130-3 forms. He recently completed his writing of the ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report’ which analyzed third-party sites that support the trading of aircraft parts. For more information, visit OPMResearch.com.

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