Airline Broadband

By Clifton Stroud | July 1, 2009
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Airline passengers want the ability to send e-mail and access the Internet in flight, and U.S. airlines are responding to that demand, rolling out a series of in-flight broadband trials.

For passengers, especially business travelers, the attraction is the ability to work in flight as if never leaving the office, accessing e-mail and the Web via a laptop or BlackBerry, without any degradation in connection speed and bandwidth. For airlines, in-flight connectivity offers a way to appeal to customers while providing an ancillary revenue stream in a tough economic climate.

It was just three years ago that Boeing’s Connexion broadband service went bust, dragged down by the economy and the post-Sept. 11 aviation environment.

Boeing, which spent $1 billion developing the service, was in many ways ahead of its time. Its work on broadband started in the 1980s for military applications; the Connexion service was launched in 2000 on Lufthansa. However, earlier this decade, most airlines were not convinced that committing the substantial up-front installation costs for the system — estimated at $200,000 to $500,000 per aircraft — would justify any kind of significant return on investment based on customer feedback.

Now, market demand for broadband service is universal and unambiguous. Airlines around the world are racing to equip all or a portion of their fleets with this capability. In the United States, Virgin America, based in San Francisco, in May announced it had equipped its fleet of 26 Airbus A320s with Wi-Fi equipment from Aircell. Other airlines, including Delta, AirTran, JetBlue, Continental, Southwest, Alaska Airways and American Airlines, are moving forward with equippage plans and trials for in-flight Web service.

The trials were in various stages of development and testing on a limited number of aircraft. They can be divided roughly into two types: satellite-based and ground-based systems.

Alaska Airlines recently completed a 60-day testing period of broadband service, contracting with Row 44, of Westlake Village, Calif., to provide satellite-based connectivity.

For the test period, Alaska Airlines installed equipment on a 737-700. It planned to deploy the system on the 737-800, its primary workhorse, thereafter. The goal is to have the entire fleet of 112 aircraft outfitted by 2010. The service was free during the testing phase but eventually will be offered for a fee.

"We asked our customers what they most wanted onboard — food, etc.," said Steve Jarvis, Alaska Airlines vice president of marketing, sales and customer experience. "Broadband connectivity was the number one request by far, especially among business travelers and even among some leisure travelers."

Jarvis estimated that 35 to 40 percent of the airline’s passenger traffic is business travelers.

"We chose Row 44 because it’s a satellite system, not ground-based," Jarvis said. "It offers a broader pipe — 33 megs per second — which is equivalent to T1 office speed. That means there is no limit to its usage."

Both Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines use broadband service from Row 44, which was founded in 2004 by high-tech entrepreneurs Gregg Fialcowitz and John Guidon. "It was clear that the demand for mobility was clear and would continue to grow, so we approached Alaska Airlines and they were the first to commit," said Guidon, a former Litton engineer and Row 44’s CEO.

The Row 44 system operates over the Hughes Ku-band medium-power global satellite system. Guidon said the design for Row 44’s system has been split into two supplemental type certificates (STC), which can be performed on an aircraft in two overnights.

Row 44 specifies four line replaceable units (LRU): a High Power Transceiver (HPT) and Antenna Control Unit (ACU), both made by Aerosat, Amherst, N.H.; a Modem Data Unit (MDU) supplied by Hughes and repackaged by AP Labs in San Diego; a Server Management Unit (SMU) manufactured by AP Labs; and two wireless access points, one aft and one forward in the cabin.

A lightweight Aerosat radome — 8 inches high, 30 inches wide and 48 inches long — sits on top of the aircraft roughly halfway between the vertical stabilizer and the trailing edge of the wing. It houses a Fuselage Mounted Unit (FMU) Ku-band antenna also made by Aerosat.

Customers connect to the system with their Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerrys or laptop computers through two wireless hotspots inside the cabin.

Row 44 data transfer rates average 30 Mbps for downlink and a maximum of 620 Kbps for uplink. "The Aerosat antenna is the secret sauce and the software that drives the system," Jarvis said. "It’s a lightweight system with two hot points in the aircraft."

The Ku-band satellite network offers coverage just about everywhere domestically and internationally, with the exception of a few areas in Alaska that are not yet available. The near-global coverage is a key advantage of the satellite-based system over the ground-based service.

The broadband system installation represents about three days of down time for the aircraft, Jarvis said. Like many airlines, Alaska Airlines outsources its heavy maintenance, in this case to Aviation Technical Services (ATS) in Everett, Wash., and retains line maintenance in-house.

Southwest also opted for the Row 44 system on its 737 fleet after carefully evaluating the available options.

"Quite a few years ago we were looking at different options for IFE — Boeing’s Connexion and others," recounted Doug Murri, Southwest Airlines senior manager of flight operation technologies. "We were hearing again that our customers wanted broadband connectivity. We put out a detailed RFP [request for proposals] to all possible players and chose Row 44 because of the pure technology. The satellite system has better technical capabilities, greater speed, and more robustness. We also evaluated different systems from a business perspective — the ability of a company to stay in business. You need to balance the cost and the technology with maintaining the Southwest customer experience."

The installations involve about 400 man hours per aircraft, or several overnights. AAR in Indianapolis performed the initial installations for Southwest.

"Like any avionics installation you learn quite a bit and build up the knowledge level with each additional installation," said Murri. "There is a learning curve with installing a significant amount of electronics and the radome on top of the aircraft."

Southwest was in the testing phase at this writing, having accumulated more than 1,000 flights with the Row 44 system provided to passengers free of charge. "We’ve had a quite a bit of customer feedback with nothing but positive responses," said Murri.

Although the Row 44 service was being used solely for data and not for voice, Murri said, it has been tested and can be used for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls. Customer feedback is not in favor of voice at this time, however.

"We’re watching the landscape pretty closely," said Murri. "If we can police it, then we might implement (voice). We’re also looking at other operational uses for VoIP — passenger emergency medical use and transmitting maintenance data from the aircraft to mechanics on the ground. A voice patch to a doctor through a flight deck radio has traditionally been difficult for flight attendants and pilots to use, but with Row 44 we can patch in our VHF headsets directly to a doctor on the ground."

Different Approach

In August 2008, American Airlines launched passenger broadband service on its coast-to-coast Boeing 767-200s, employing Gogo, a broadband system based on the Aircell terrestrial network of 91 cell towers throughout the United States. A number of airlines have opted to implement Gogo, including United, American, Northwest, Delta, Virgin America and Air Canada on its trans-border routes.

"Our service is much more economical than a satellite-based system," said Fran Phillips, Aircell’s senior vice president, airline solutions, who cited the lightweight antennas, cost and ease of installation as key benefits of the Gogo system.

There are two small blade antennas supplied by Cobham company Comant Industries, Fullerton, Calif. — each just a little over one pound — and a small Comant GPS antenna mounted on top of the aircraft.

Installation can be done in an overnight by Aircell, which owns the STC for each aircraft fleet type, or by a third-party MRO. The cost of installation to the airline is about $100,000 per aircraft, but there are no monthly operational cost to the carrier. Average connection speeds are "similar to the mobile broadband experience on the ground," Phillips said.

"We have enough bandwidth for all the U.S. airlines," said Phillips, "and our service also works with a lot of airline operational applications like maintenance tracking, electronic flight bags and customer service for passengers and flight attendants. We believe that air-to-ground is the most cost efficient connectivity system."

American Airlines is installing Gogo on its MD-80s and 737-800s. Passengers pay a per-flight fee for unlimited Internet access using a WiFi-enabled laptop, smartphone or PDA.

"Passengers always want more bandwidth," Phillips said. "When we go to our fourth-generation system, (which is) targeted for the beginning of 2011, we will have much more bandwidth, faster speeds and possibly new antennas on the ground. Updates to the aircraft LRUs are minimal — changes on the ground are not. Streaming a movie requires a lot of bandwidth, but video is on a shorter-term horizon for us. Beyond that, we’re working with partners to provide international connectivity on the Ku satellite band."

In May, Delta said it had installed the Gogo system on nearly half of its domestic mainline fleet. Of the more than 300 aircraft Delta operates on U.S. routes, 139 are equipped with Gogo, including its entire MD-88 fleet.

JetBlue first launched its "BetaBlue" broadband service on one Airbus A320 in December 2007. The service is offered by LiveTV, a JetBlue subsidiary, through a network platform called Kiteline. It runs on an air-to-ground network of 100 base stations throughout the United States, which LiveTV purchased from Verizon Airfone in 2008.

Using a Wi-Fi-enabled device, passengers have access to 36 channels of live television and e-mail through most of the popular e-mail services. In order to keep the service free for passengers, the airline partnered with Yahoo, BlackBerry developer Research in Motion, Gmail, Livemail, Hotmail, AOL, MSN and Amazon.

JetBlue’s primary concern was allowing passengers access to e-mail, not the Web. "Passengers told us they don’t need to surf the Web — they want e-mail," said Alison Croyle, JetBlue manager of corporate communications.

LiveTV owns the STC, and installation takes about two days at the company’s hangar in Orlando.

"We will roll it out fleetwide this year, but we have no timeline yet for when our entire fleet of 130 A320s will be outfitted," Croyle said this spring.

OnAir, a joint venture of Airbus and SITA based in Geneva, provides broadband to airlines based on Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service. At this writing, OnAir had signed up Ryanair, Royal Jordanian, British Airways and Kingfisher, among other airlines, for the service.

The OnAir system components include a picocell, which provides the radio interface to mobile phones in the cabin; an onboard channel selector; a server to manage communications; and an air-to-ground modem to allocate air-to-ground resources.

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