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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

4 Big Moves for the IFC Industry in 2015

Juliet Van Wagenen

[Avionics Today 12-29-2015] In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) is becoming ubiquitous with air travel, and doing so at a rapid clip. In the world of aviation, where progress is often glacial at best, a year doesn’t always mean much for one segment of the industry, but with Internet popping up on fleets everywhere and providers working to move IFC from its “dial-up” phase to DSL, 2015 has been a big year for providers like Gogo and ViaSat.

From Netflix at 35,000 feet to Europe’s foray into Wi-Fi, here are the year’s biggest IFC announcements.

Photo: United Airlines

Virgin Atlantic Launches Streaming Neflix
Shortly after entering into a technology partnership with ViaSat, Virgin Atlantic announced it would be launching free streaming Netflix for passengers on 10 new Airbus A320 aircraft. Beginning in October, Netflix users onboard Virgin America's new ViaSat Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft were able to stream Netflix programs to their phones, tablets and laptops at no cost through March 2016.

Providing reliable streaming video from Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms such as Netflix and Hulu has been a much-chased goal for providers and airlines alike. Virgin America attributed the capability to the recent connectivity partnership with satellite communications company ViaSat and its hybrid Ka/Ku-band solution, which Virgin America says brings “significantly faster” Wi-Fi to the airline's A320s delivered from fall 2015 to mid-2016.

“We do believe that satellite Wi-Fi is the future and will help us keep pace with how people use the Internet today,” Ken Bieler, director of product design and innovation at Virgin America, told Avionics Magazine in an earlier interview. “Every year travelers use more and more bandwidth and this new partnership opens up a new world of bandwidth options for guests, including the ability to stream video content in-flight.”

Gogo’s 2Ku is FAA Certified
In line with Bieler’s inclination toward satellite Wi-Fi as the future for IFC, Gogo has been touting its satellite connectivity option, 2Ku, expected to come on board any day now.

“An air-to-ground solution by itself is no longer competitive,” Gogo CEO Michael Small shared with investors just one year ago at the December 2014 UBS Global Media and Communications Conference. “It used to be that regional coverage was competitive in the wireless business on the ground and then all of a sudden it had to be national coverage. Even with the U.S. fleet, they fly to the Caribbean, they fly to Hawaii, they fly to Mexico. If connectivity is transformative to aviation, you can’t afford to have it most of the time; you have to have it all of the time. So a high percentage of planes will be satellite.”

The U.S. FAA certified its 2Ku satellite solution in November, awarding Gogo with a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) to fly and test the solution on board Aeromexico's Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

The certification allows Gogo and Aeromexico to offer service and begin testing the technology. It also clears the way for further 2Ku installations on Aeromexico's fleet in the coming months as Gogo has been contracted to provide connectivity across its entire fleet of 737-800s and Gogo Vision, Gogo's wireless In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) product, on its fleet of 737-700s, Embraer 190 and 170 aircraft.

Gogo is looking to the solution to help eliminate capacity constraints for IFC as the offering comes on line and aircraft begin to equip. To date, five airlines are signed up to deploy 2Ku on aircraft in their fleet: launch customer Delta, Virgin Atlantic, GOL, AeroMexico, United, Japan Transocean, and Air Canada. As aircraft on these fleets transition to 2Ku— such as Delta’s fleet, which has committed to transitioning 250 aircraft from ATG to the satellite solution by 2018 — capacity will free up in Air-to-Ground (ATG) network and enable more bandwidth in all areas of the Gogo network.

The European Aviation Network Emerges
North America has long been the front runner when it comes to IFC equipage, but in September, Deustche Telecom and Inmarsat announced their plans to launch a combined LTE-based ground network and satellite network across Europe, dubbed the European Aviation Network (EAN).

EAN will combine satellite-based S-band connectivity from Inmarsat with a ground-based LTE network developed and run by Deutsche Telekom. Lufthansa has announced plans to launch the broadband Internet on its short and medium-haul flights beginning in the summer 2016. Germany's largest carrier will introduce the broadband powered by Inmarsat's Global Xpress (GX) aviation network, which launched its third satellite in the constellation at the end of August, making progress toward global commercial service introduction by the end of 2015.

According to Inmarsat, the European Aviation Network is part of its long-term airborne connectivity service plans, as Lufthansa has committed to a flight trial program of the network beginning in 2017. Lufthansa Technik will be integrating all the systems and components necessary to facilitate GX connectivity on the airline's regional aircraft and will provide the technical infrastructure needed to establish the onboard Internet connection.

GEE Gears Up for Operational Connectivity with Acquisitions
While passenger entertainment has rung in the advent and adoption of IFC, operational connectivity is catching the eye of airlines and providers as the real way to ensure Return on Investment (ROI). In August Global Eagle Entertainment announced two acquisitions that aim to capitalize on connectivity in ways that will allow airlines to up operational efficiency by exploiting Big Data.

With the acquisitions GEE has jumpstarted a new business line, GEE Operations Solutions, through the acquisition of two companies: masFlight, which provides a cloud-based business intelligence platform that processes and analyzes global aviation operations data; and navAero, which specializes in avionics integration and Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) cockpit data solutions.

The two companies will form the foundation of a business line that aims to leverage GEE’s Ku-band satellite connectivity in order to offer services that collect real-time aircraft data, transmit information between aircraft and the ground, and process and analyze information, among others.

“We think operations data clearly offers the biggest value when it comes to driving ancillary revenue through connectivity, in the long run,” said GEE’s Chief Commercial Officer Wale Adepoju. “To be able to communicate the data information and assets that are airborne to the ground really opens up a new world in terms of the entire operating economics. Operations has always been on our road map, and when the chance to buy these two companies came up we jumped at it.”

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