Impetus, critical mass, a workable business model - can the airline connectivity providers attain these long sought holy grails in the year to come?
The auguries are mixed. This is a sector with a long history of gallant failure – Connexion by Boeing, Verizon Airfone, the expensive and little used first-generation Inmarsat-based phone services. And of course the global economy continues to toboggan downhill towards who knows what low point.
On the other hand, in the last 12 months several connectivity companies started doing what they said they would do. Top marks for hitting its deadlines must go to Aircell, which launched the Gogo North American terrestrially based passenger broadband service with a 15-aircraft American Airlines trial. Also shaping up, but more slowly, are onboard cellphone providers Aeromobile and OnAir, both dependent on an Inmarsat infrastructure that should finally go global within the next couple of months. And LiveTV is quietly pursuing an economical strategy that could help broaden the appeal of its core inflight television offering.
The jury remains out on the strivers of the satellite Ku-band community, however. The would-be heirs of Connexion continue to dash their feet on the regulatory and technical complexities of the satellite business – the timetable for Row 44’s trials programme is sliding to the right, Panasonic is keeping its cards clamped to its chest, and a venture by a VT Miltope/T-Mobile team to meet Lufthansa’s broadband needs seems to be going nowhere fast.
Aircell is now looking forward to amassing commitments for Gogo installations in more than 2,000 aircraft before the end of 2009. Besides American, Virgin America and Delta have introduced the service and are committed to fleet fits. Air Canada is expected to launch in the spring, and Delta says it will start work on certification of Gogo in the domestic aircraft of recently acquired Northwest Airlines with a view to starting installations within 12 months.
Aircell’s ambitions aren’t combined to North America. The Colorado-headquartered company says it is evaluating ways to offer Gogo on intercontinental flights: any such solution would require co-operation with either Inmarsat, with its soon to be global SwiftBroadband L-band service, or the emerging Ku-band providers. Newly arrived among the latter is ViaSat, of which more below.
Onboard cellphone providers AeroMobile and OnAir would certainly like to entertain North American hopes of their own. But with the misbegotten Hang Up Bill still hanging over their heads they remain focused on those regions where they are welcome. Chief among these is the Middle East, where AeroMobile launch customer Emirates is racing to outfit its entire fleet by the end of next year and new Kuwaiti premium carrier Wataniya looks set to become the first to offer OnAir on a full commercial basis.
Both providers have had no end of trials – Malaysia Airlines is currently taking a look at AeroMobile, bmi of the UK and TAP Portugal are doing likewise with OnAir – but no-strings-attached fleet programmes have been slow to get started. Next year could however see OnAir introduced by Malaysia’s AirAsia and its AirAsia X subsidiary, Airblue of Pakistan, Middle Eastern carrier Jazeera Airways, Kingfisher of India, Oman Air, Royal Jordanian, Shenzhen Airlines of China and Brazil’s TAM as well as Wataniya. Expected to go in to bat for AeroMobile are Qantas, Saudi Arabian Airlines and V Australia.
Deserving of an honourable mention for its efforts in 2008 is LiveTV. The Florida-based inflight television specialist has effectively taken over the business of Verizon Airfone and plans to use the spectrum and ground network to offer instant messaging and email to its TV customers and other carriers in the USA. Parent company JetBlue, plus Continental Airlines and Frontier Airlines, have signed up for the service, which is called Kiteline. They could also opt for a new offering called Oasis, being developed to use LiveTV’s WiFi-based Wireless Aircraft Data Link (WADL) to deliver up-to-date Web content to aircraft servers during ground turnrounds.
By a clear street the most transparent of the aspiring Ku-band suppliers is Row 44 of California, which is labouring to launch trials of its Internet access service with Alaska and Southwest, both of which have said they will outfit their fleets if the results are satisfactory.
Row 44 spectacularly took the wraps off its aircraft equipment at September’s WAEA show in Long Beach, demonstrating the AeroSat antenna and the four system boxes aboard a vintage Grumman Albatross flying boat. All seemed set fair for the company to sail aboard an Alaska Boeing 737 and four from Southwest in time for trials to get under way before the end of the year. But the company reckoned without the US regulatory mills, which grind both slowly and exceeding small, and the machinations of the competition.
A complete system – antenna, high-power transceiver (HPT), modem data unit (MDU), switch management unit (SMU) communications router, and WiFi wireless access point – was installed last month in the Alaska Airlines aircraft for company testing and to facilitate FAA supplemental type certification of the installation. But then Row 44 fell foul of its own good planning, having designed the equipment as two separately certificated packages to facilitate installation in two overnight stops.
The first certificate was received early last month but the second didn’t arrive until November 26, by which time the aircraft was back in revenue service and the equipment removed. Row 44 is also waiting on the FAA’s Parts Manufacturing Authority (PMA) process, which clears the individual system components for airborne use. The components of the first STC package (the internal boxes) have PMA clearance but Row 44 still awaits the go-ahead for the second (the antenna, radome and mounting plate).
The company says the first Southwest installation will start once the PMA box has been ticked. But the Alaska trial is currently on hold until some time early next year, though the airline insists it remains fully committed.
Meantime, Row 44 is glumly contemplating another banana skin in the form of a string of spoiling manoeuvres from competitors. These affect the company’s application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a licence to operate an aeronautical mobile satellite service (AMSS) in the conventional Ku-band spectrum allocated to the USA. Without dwelling on the infinitely tedious detail, it can be said that ViaSat, which already has an AMSS licence, and ARINC are doing their best to ensure that Row 44 jumps through the maximum of hoops to show it can operate in the band with interfering with other services.
ViaSat has two irons in the fire. It supplies airborne hardware and satellite network services to support ARINC’s SKYLink broadband service for business aviation. And earlier this year it declared an ambition to set up as an aviation Ku-band service provider in its own right, addressing both the business and the airline markets.
As well as permanent authority to operate in US Ku-band spectrum, Row 44 also needs special temporary authorities (STA) from the FCC in order to be able to test its system over the satellite. The company has applied for both this year, and ViaSat has objected comprehensively. As things currently stand, Row 44 needs separate STAs for mobility trials and for use of a temporary fixed Earth station. The first was filed with the FCC in July and is still pending; Row 44 withdrew the second in the face of ViaSat’s objections.
For its part, the FCC says the Row 44 applications “have priority” but declines to give a timetable for any decisions.
Panasonic must be watching all this with weary resignation. The California-based IFE giant has seen its timetable for the eXconnect broadband service hurtle to the right over the last two or three years amidst indications of some radical system rethinks. But the dust does seem to have begun to settle in the last 12 months with the naming of two key suppliers. Intelsat has been named as the satellite capacity supplier, and the EMS Technologies/Starling team as airborne antenna vendor. Trials with a North American airline are supposed to take place in the first half of next year. Given Row 44’s tribulations, that will have to remain to be seen
Another outfit with a necessary appetite for the long haul is the VT Miltope/T-Mobile team reported to have been working for at least a couple of years to supply Lufthansa with a replacement for Connexion by Boeing that utilises most of the CBB equipment already in the aircraft. Michael Lamberty, spokesman for the German carrier, acknowledged the reports earlier this year but wasn’t much more forthcoming. “At this stage we’re not in a position to comment,” he said. “We are indeed continuing our efforts to offer broadband connectivity again, but we can offer no information on the timetable or possible partners.”
While the fog of commercial war still surrounds much of the connectivity business, one thing is clear. The next 12 months will yield answers to some of the big questions that have exercised the industry for years. Will there be fistfights in the cabin? Will passengers use their cellphones and will the service providers start to make money? Is the ordinary traveller as hungry for email and the Web in the air as he is on the ground? By this time next year we’ll know all that and more.