IFC Providers Focused on Diversity, Expansion

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | March 17, 2015
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[Avionics Today 03-17-2015] In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) providers are exploring how they can expand and improve the value propositions for the cabin and cockpit connectivity that they’re providing for airlines and operators today. How can they do that? It depends on who you ask, as a panel discussion at SATELLITE 2015 on IFC featuring the biggest players in the game found many different strategies toward expanding and improving within the aircraft connectivity options.
A depiction of Gogo’s Ground to Orbit (GTO) aircraft connectivity network. Photo: Gogo.
Panelists from Panasonic Avionics, ViaSat, Global Eagle Entertainment, Thales and Inmarsat produced many different views on strategies for bringing solutions to market that make sense economically and provide capabilities that are long lasting over the life span of an airframe. While Gogo has seen success with its Air to Ground (ATG) model in the U.S., the panelists suggested that satellite-based L-, Ku- and Ka-band options or hybrid solutions are a better choice internationally where operators are flying over water where ATG is not an option. 
“I think ATG for high density over land routes is clearly a superior technology. The problem is few aircraft operate exclusively over land and over high density routes,” said Leo Mondale, president of the aviation division at Inmarsat. “So if you want aircraft to be covered all over the world wherever it goes, you need a hybrid solution and something that works all the time.”
All of the companies agree that there really is no one-size-fits-all solution for keeping airlines happy, and the economics are complicated no matter what strategy they pursue. That’s why they’re continuing to diversify their strategies. 
Inmarsat is currently working on rolling out an ATG network in Europe that will rival what Gogo has been able to do in the U.S. Gogo Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Anand Chari said the focus right now for his company is expanding capacity and acquiring more spectrum. Chari said Gogo is awaiting to see whether the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to hold another spectrum auction, as they look to improve their U.S.-based service.
“ATG is great for a large landmass where you have high aircraft density, it’s extremely scalable, most economical, least down time, least weight,” said Chari. “We’ve been looking for more spectrum, that’s one of the options; we’ve been looking for hybrid solutions, that’s another option; we’ve been looking for more capacity — all those options are on the table.”
Chari added that the FCC is considering offering up several licenses with its next auction and that the amount of spectrum available would be 40 times more than what they have right now.
Panasonic Avionics, for example, announced their acquisition of satellite communication service provider ITC Global, to further increase its own position as a satellite operator and deliver connectivity to commercial aircraft, said David Bruner, vice president of global communications services at Panasonic Avionics, during the panel discussion.
“If you’re a satellite service provider, you’re always being pressed to drive down cost and increase performance. The goal would be, can you make this system comparable in weight and cost to ATG?” said Bruner. “ATG is maybe lower on an operating cost basis but you’ve got this huge up front capital cost, you have to have a license and you have to roll out a network. So you have to survey all these pieces and figure out what’s the market, how much is that market going to win, and where do the economics go?”
Thales, which acquired LiveTV in 2014, is also focused on diversifying the solutions that it has available, as their most recent success has been the IFC solution featured on JetBlue.

“It’s kind of the wild west. We’re all here grabbing market share, looking for penetration points in different parts of the world, so that we can grow the fleet because we all believe the Internet is going to be big,” said Mike Moeller, vice president of business development for the connectivity division at Thales. “It’s not about the technology — ViaSat has a great technology — it’s about the total customer care package and really bringing a comprehensive package on the back end. My best analogy would be your smartphone — it’s really all the apps. Cockpit, communications, operations, wrapping that all up into a cost baseline that an airline can make it a core to their airline is, I believe, what is going to become a differentiator.” 

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