ARINC boss backs AeroMobile business case
“OUR original business plan for AeroMobile showed us taking four or five years from start of development before we began to make money on it,” ARINC chief executive John Belcher told Inflight Online last week. “We’re tracking the number of calls we are getting with Emirates and it’s right on plan. So I think the business case looks pretty good.”
Airline communications and IT specialist ARINC is joint owner of AeroMobile, which earlier this year introduced the world’s first fully commercial onboard cellphone service with Emirates. “I think we’re leading the pack,” Belcher said. “We have at least nine airlines that have signed contracts or letters of understanding. We have far more supplemental type certificates for aircraft installations than our competitor. And thanks to our partner Telenor we have roaming agreements in large numbers of countries.”
But AeroMobile’s prospects and those of rival OnAir continue to be shadowed by the attitude of the US regulatory authorities, which have yet to retreat from their position that voice services could lead to discord in the cabin. “Our experience with Emirates shows that there have been no air-rage incidents whatever,” Belcher commented. “In time it will be shown in parts of the world outside the USA that there really is no issue. That will ultimately put pressure on the FCC and FAA to change their minds.”
The AeroMobile air-to-ground link is supplied by London-based mobile satellite operator Inmarsat, which offers a maximum capacity per channel of 432kbit/sec though its SwiftBroadband service. ARINC itself has offered its airline customers Inmarsat services since the beginning of the 1990s, starting with the original voice and 9.6kbit/sec capability. But the company also recognised the merits of the higher bandwidth potential of Ku-band satellite technology and launched its SKYLink service for business aviation a few years ago. “We plan to stick with both technologies – there’s a need for both L-band and Ku-band,” Belcher emphasised.
ARINC continues to develop SKYLink – it recently extended coverage to the Caribbean and northern South America and plans to introduce service on the North Pacific next year. But the number of aircraft equipped currently stands at about 80, a total that has not grown significantly in the last 12 months.
Belcher is undismayed: “I speak personally to some of the companies that use SKYLink and they think it’s very good. Large numbers of new bizjets are on order, and we see the availability of our service as one of the big attractions to the people buying many of those aircraft. We see a good future for SKYLink.”
He doesn’t expect any major surge in aircraft numbers in the near term, however. “With the state of the economy right now, it’s going to take a lot longer than the next 12 months for the number of equipped aircraft to double,” he cautioned. “The existing orders for larger, longer-range bizjets will yield a good level of demand, but it’s hard to predict how long it will take to get our next 80 aircraft.”
ARINC has always entertained ambitions to supply Ku-band to the airlines, and has not abandoned them in spite of a plethora of emerging competition. “With a Ku-band solution you’re looking at $300-400,000 per aircraft for equipment, and I don’t believe you’re going to see many of the major airlines jumping in to spend that kind of money under today’s conditions,” he said. “But there’s certainly a requirement out there and if an airline issued a request for proposals we would sure bid it.”
Though ARINC has Ku-band for business aviation very much to itself at the moment, competition is on the horizon – and approaching from an unexpected direction. Californian company ViaSat supplies airborne equipment and satellite networking services for SKYLink. Earlier this year it declared that it would also enter the market as a service provider in its own right. “If ViaSat want to get into the service provision business, that’s fine,” declared Belcher. “We’ve got a great reputation as a service provider and we expect that there will always be people out there ready to challenge us. If ViaSat want to join them, that’s up to them.”
Invited to guess at the shape of the Ku-band connectivity landscape in five years’ time, Belcher could offer scant comfort to would-be airline providers like Row 44 and Panasonic. “The solutions we now have available will meet any foreseeable connectivity requirement from business aviation, and I think we’re going to see that sector expand fairly dramatically,” he concluded. “But I don’t think the major airlines are going to move into Ku-band for quite a long time – they can’t afford it at present.”
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