In-flight entertainment has transformed significantly over the past few decades – from hard disks and displays integrated into individual seatbacks to the latest bring-your-own-device (BYOD) options supported by in-flight connectivity.
Updating in-flight entertainment systems can have several advantages. Removing displays and onboard server components can considerably reduce aircraft weight, which translates to higher fuel efficiency. And replacing seat-integrated displays with fast and reliable in-flight broadband means cutting considerable maintenance costs.
Telecommunication service providers (TSPs) – who are battling the rapidly declining average revenue per user (ARPU) and cutthroat market competition – can approach in-flight connectivity as a potential new avenue for revenue generation. Several recent developments will affect and potentially accelerate the in-flight entertainment/connectivity market.
- Cross-industry initiative: The recently formed Seamless Air Alliance was founded by organizations from throughout the airline in-flight infotainment ecosystem, including Aerospace mammoth Airbus, Delta Air Lines, satellite communications specialist OneWeb and telecommunication service providers Sprint and Bharti Airtel. The founding members were later joined by Nokia, Air France KLM, Aeromexico, GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes, Rockwell Collins and Intelsat and is expected to attract other stakeholders in-flight entertainment ecosystem, such as GoGo.
The Alliance aims to promote 5G in-flight internet connectivity, help organizations avoid the roadblocks associated with acquiring, installing and operating data access infrastructure and ease TSP market entry into aviation. It wants passengers to be able to access the internet seamlessly and cost-effectively without a complicated login process. The Alliance will enable Sprint and Airtel to provide high-speed, low-latency, satellite-based in-flight connectivity services.
- Rise of the super WiFi: As global TSPs test 5G and develop deployment strategies, the in-flight broadband segment is expected to undergo a major makeover. Qatar Airways has already introduced Inmarsat’s GX Aviation broadband access technology on 130 widebody jets using Honeywell’s JetWave in-ﬂight Ka-band satellite communications hardware. Qatar will be offering complimentary connectivity through the so called ‘Super WiFi’ for an hour and charging a reasonable hourly rate for connectivity during the remaining journey irrespective of the class of travel.
- Deployment by low-cost carriers (LCCs): The trend of full-service flights being the only ones to provide in-flight entertainment and connectivity is coming to an end. Some European airlines are using an airline-only LTE network that leverages hybrid air-to-ground and satellite technology to provide inflight broadband connectivity to low-cost carriers. Scalability and sustainability will come with wider availability of a cost-effective connectivity solution and large-scale deployment. Scaling necessary as European air traffic is predicted to double over the next 15 years. Deutsche Telekom has partnered with Inmarsat and Nokia to initiate work on a proposed continent-spanning European Aviation Network (EAN) to provide data connectivity to commercial flights. The network will involve 300 LTE base stations across the European Union. Initial service will be deployed across the International Airline Group fleet, which includes British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling.
- Live TV channels access: A number of carriers have begun providing live TV channel access to passengers, including American Airlines, which is using the Gogo 2Ku satellite connectivity to provide twelve live TV channels on 100 of its narrow-body fleet. The airline plans to deploy live streaming services across its entire narrow body fleet of 700 aircraft through 2019. Also, Southwest has been one of the pioneers in the LCC segment to adopt a BYOD policy in the Americas. With complimentary access to a stored inventory of movies and live TV programs, passengers on Southwest can pay to access onboard WiFi and a few messaging apps.
- Connectivity services evolution: Real-time flight tracking through seamless connectivity with the ground workforce has been one of the priorities across the aviation sector to avoid incidents like the disappearance of flight MH370. Accordingly, in-fight connectivity providers such as Viasat and Gogo have been investing in the satellite networks so they contribute more to the commercial aviation operations ecosystem. Inmarsat and Qatar Airways are beginning to deploy real-time flight location tracking using satellite connectivity. Iridium Communications has partnered with Honeywell Aerospace, Skytrac, Avitek and Navicom Aviation to provide the Iridium Certus service, which features graphical weather reports, multi-user internet and very small aperture terminal (VSAT) redundancy to flight data recorder streaming, videoconferencing and safety enhancement.
- “Entertainment in a box” enablement: The value for passenger BYOD can be enhanced by offering “entertainment in a box” systems, often represented by a portable server with preinstalled content. Passengers can carry these small, battery-powered boxes on the aircraft to access the content on their own devices without internet connectivity. “Entertainment in a box” has been popular with Thomas Cook Airlines, Air Europa and Azul and can be a cost-effective approach for similar business and leisure-oriented carriers. This solutions poses a significant threat to the in-flight broadband market.
Airlines face several roadblocks before they can widely adopt BYOD across its fleet. First, the seats would necessitate a charging point or an USB port through which the devices can be charged, which will increase the overall onboard power requirement and higher operational costs.
Another challenge to advanced connectivity networks is cybersecurity. A hack into these systems or cockpit avionics can have catastrophic results. New cost-effective connectivity solution deployments across LCCs will create significant white spaces for cybersecurity technology developers.
However, passenger access to predefined content would require a streaming app or a plug-in to view content and, thus, create opportunities for service providers who are already working with the respective airlines. The opportunities exist across outsourced functions, such as development and testing of web applications, mobile sites and mobile apps and testing for mobile automation tools, system integration and user acceptance.
With Deutsche Telekom, Bharti Airtel, Sprint and others venturing into the in-flight connectivity domain, we expect more TSPs to gradually explore the opportunities in aviation. TSPs will likely leverage their expertise in 5G technologies and quickly pull their partner equipment providers into the aviation business. Nokia is already involved, and other equipment providers such as Huawei, ZTE and Ericsson are likely to find their way in. This is expected to have a cascading effect and involve service provider partners that have been working with these stakeholders. Evidently, service providers with experience in projects such as server management for in-flight broadband systems, Wi-Fi application design, coding, testing and placement into iOS or Google Play app stores will have some competitive advantage.