Aircraft Interiors: Panasonic sets autumn date for eXconnect broadband
Panasonic plans to launch its eXconnect Ku-band satellite passenger connectivity service this autumn and says it has an initial customer base of five airlines.
“All five have also opted for the eXphone onboard mobile phone service offered by AeroMobile,” David Bruner, the company’s VP for global communication services, told Inflight Online at the show. “Two of them are from Europe, two from Asia and one from Africa.”
First announced three years ago, the new Panasonic service will be rolled out initially on the North Atlantic, with Asia and South America, the South Pacific and Africa following a few months later.
The launch will come at least 12 months later than originally planned, following a protracted antenna selection process. “The antenna has been the biggest challenge,” Bruner admitted. “It was difficult to find one that worked everywhere in the world. But now we have a system from EMS Technologies/Starling in test at our own facility and it’s proving to be very good.”
The antenna stands out by virtue of its ability to generate a very tight beam to the satellite. “This is essential to avoid interference with neighbouring satellites or a reduction in the data rates that we can offer,” explained Bruner. “No other system comes close in this respect – it’s at least twice as good as one competitor.”
Panasonic is promising generous data bandwidth to and from the aircraft – 30-50Mbit/sec from the satellite, 1.5Mbit/sec in the opposite direction. “But it’s not all about bandwidth,” said Bruner. “We estimate that our cost per bit will be a quarter that of SwiftBroadband, the Inmarsat L-band service.”
Panasonic faces a number of key milestones in the next few months. It needs the regulatory approval of each the countries that will be overflown by eXconnect-equipped aircraft. “We’ve put a significant investment into this effort and so far we have about a hundred national approvals,” said Bruner. “We expect to have secured another 80 by the time we launch, leaving around 30 still to get. Among the outstanding ones are countries like the USA, Canada, China, Russia and Australia, all of which have very complex requirements.”
The summer is due to see the first installation of onboard equipment, on a customer BBJ that will double as the first flight-test aircraft. “After that we expect to see the equipment certificated on several different aircraft types in rapid succession,” said Bruner. “We’re working with a number of certification specialists and maintenance/repair organisations to develop installation schemes that will minimise the amount of aircraft downtime. Retrofit installations will generally take place during A-checks, though we are also developing ways of doing it in the course of a number of overnight stops.”
Getting the equipment into aircraft fast is vital, according to Bruner. “The business case for Ku-band is initially fragile until installations reach 300-500 aircraft. So we’re doing everything we can to speed the roll-out. At the same time we’re doing some very inventive things to minimise our own costs until we get to that economic sweet spot.”