Lofty Con­nec­tions

The out­look is bright for break­throughs in air­borne tech­nol­ogy, ser­vices and con­tent

Business Traveler (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mag­gie Squires

The most anx­i­ety-in­duc­ing mo­ment for a business trav­eler might be find­ing out your six­hour, transcon­ti­nen­tal flight has no WiFi ac­cess. The most anx­i­ety-in­duc­ing hours might be when your flight does have WiFi, and you spend the en­tire trip with the ten­sion knot­ting up your shoul­ders while you strug­gle to send five to 10 ur­gent e-mails. And bless your blood pres­sure if you need to send an at­tach­ment.

For what it’s worth, you’re not alone in your anx­i­ety. Ac­cord­ing to a study from iPass, an en­ter­prise mo­bil­ity ser­vices and global WiFi net­work, 87 per­cent of business trav­el­ers be­come angry and anx­ious when they can­not ac­cess WiFi.

Air­lines keep their in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity progress a bit foggy for a rea­son – with the ex­cep­tion of Vir­gin Amer­ica, which has WiFi on 100 per­cent of its flights. A study from Honey­well in 2014 found 17 per­cent of trav­el­ers have switched car­ri­ers for a bet­ter In­ter­net of­fer­ing.

Con­sumer be­hav­iors show that con­nec­tiv­ity in the air lags be­hind ev­ery other form of trans­porta­tion. DePaul Univer­sity’s Chad­dick In­sti­tute for Met­ro­pol­i­tan De­vel­op­ment found that 39.5 per­cent of air­line pas­sen­gers use mo­bile tech­nol­ogy, com­pared to 59.4 per­cent of dis­count bus pas­sen­gers and 52.2 per­cent of Am­trak pas­sen­gers.

Honey­well’s Wire­less Con­nec­tiv­ity Survey found that in­flight WiFi causes frus­tra­tions for nearly nine in ten users world­wide, most of­ten due to in­con­sis­tent or slow con­nec­tions. Honey­well also found that 45 per­cent of trav­el­ers would go through TSA’s se­cu­rity screen­ing process twice if they got more re­li­able WiFi on their flight in re­turn.

Given that 100 per­cent of trav­el­ers dis­like go­ing through TSA’s se­cu­rity screen­ing process once, there’s clearly a healthy mar­ket de­mand for bet­ter WiFi. So what’s halt­ing im­prove­ment?

In 2015, Hope Floats

Satel­lite band­width is the big­gest road­block.“The ma­jor per­for­mance lim­i­ta­tion cur­rently is the avail­able band­width from satel­lites,”says Boe­ing spokesper­son El­iz­a­beth Holle­man.“While ad­vances in com­pres­sion and use of spot beams in the sys­tems im­prove the flow of data through the sys­tems, the air­plane con­nec­tiv­ity en­vi­ron­ment will lag the per­for­mance and band­width as­so­ci­ated with ground-based sys­tems.”

This in­for­ma­tion is dis­heart­en­ing, but don’t give up all hope just yet.

Satel­lite band­width chal­lenges aside, we might see some sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments in the next 12 to 18 months with new tech­nolo­gies rolling out mid- to late-2015 from Boe­ing, AT&T and Gogo.

Boe­ing is pro­duc­ing a new“radome,”the Boe­ing Tri-band. A radome is weath­er­proof equip­ment pro­tect­ing an air­plane’s antenna so that satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions are re­li­able. The word comes from com­bin­ing“radar”and“dome,”and it will be avail­able for retrofit and pro­duc­tion air­plane in­stal­la­tion in the fourth quar­ter of 2015.

What does this new struc­ture mean for trav­el­ers?“Th­ese new [Boe­ing Tri-Band radome] bands can support ad­di­tional SAT­COM ser­vices, po­ten­tially in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion be­tween ser­vice providers, lead­ing to im­proved con­nec­tion speeds and lower costs,”says Holle­man. More com­pe­ti­tion will hope­fully lead to in­no­va­tion in the mar­ket.

AT&T has plans to launch a high-speed 4G LTE-based in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity ser­vice as soon as late 2015.“We plan to build in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity tech­nol­ogy un­like any other that ex­ists to­day based on 4G LTE stan­dards, which we be­lieve will en­able air­lines to ben­e­fit from re­li­able high speeds and over­all value and ex­pe­ri­ence for their pas­sen­gers,”says AT&T spokesper­son Roberta Thom­son.“Our con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence, con­tent re­la­tion­ships for

in­flight en­ter­tain­ment and breadth of business con­tacts are ad­van­tages that we be­lieve will help us de­liver cost-ef­fec­tive and high-per­form­ing in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity and en­ter­tain­ment.”

In ad­di­tion, promis­ing im­prove­ments are on tap from Gogo, which will trial its new 2Ku in­flight In­ter­net tech­nol­ogy with Air Canada in 2015.“2Ku is the nextgen­er­a­tion satel­lite tech­nol­ogy, which brings a whole new level of ca­pac­ity to the plane,”says Gogo’s chief com­mer­cial of­fi­cer, Ash ElDifrawi.

And given that satel­lite band­width is in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity’s big­gest road­block, any im­prove­ment in satel­lite tech­nol­ogy feels most promis­ing.

Gogo’s new satel­lite tech­nol­ogy will in­crease speeds to 70 megabytes per sec­ond. In con­trast, to­day’s ser­vice is 10 Mbps, and Gogo’s orig­i­nal ser­vice was 3 Mbps.“[2Ku] will work as well in the air as [WiFi] does on the ground,”says ElDifrawi.

Although we don’t know for cer­tain that it will def­i­nitely work as well as our earth­bound WiFi to­day, in­creas­ing speed seven-fold does sound like an aus­pi­cious and wel­comed step.

Call Me Never

In­flight con­nec­tiv­ity brings up the vex­ing ques­tion of whether or not we should be able to make a phone call in the sky. Do we want this op­tion? More specif­i­cally, do we want our fel­low (po­ten­tially chatty) pas­sen­gers to be able to make a phone call in the air, too?

The US is dis­tinct from the rest of the world, in that pas­sen­gers don’t have the choice to make in­flight phone calls on com­mer­cial flights. OnAir, an in­flight WiFi and mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tions provider, op­er­ates on more than 500 air­craft with air­lines such as Emi­rates, Qatar, Sin­ga­pore Air­lines and Bri­tish Air­ways. Its ser­vices let pas­sen­gers on th­ese air­lines use WiFi, mo­bile data and voice ser­vice for calls.

OnAir’s CEO Ian Dawkins re­leased a state­ment in June urg­ing the FCC and FAA to cre­ate a le­gal frame­work giv­ing the air­lines the op­tion of of­fer­ing in­flight cell­phone use.

“It’s about giv­ing free­dom of choice to the air­lines,”says Dawkins. “Some of OnAir’s air­line cus­tomers use the data part, and they might switch it if off dur­ing night flights. They use what they want. The point is giv­ing the in­dus­try the choice and not con­strain­ing the in­dus­try.”

Grant­ing air­lines fly­ing in the US the choice to en­able voice calls on flights doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean all the pas­sen­gers around you will sud­denly be­come in­ces­sant chat­ter­boxes gabbing into their phones.“What 90 per­cent of pas­sen­gers use is data, 10 per­cent is voice,”says Dawkins. “The majority use their mo­bile de­vice to check e-mail, and that’s a pri­or­ity of the WiFi ser­vices.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, be­cause voice ser­vices can be switched on and off, most air­lines opt to turn voice ser­vices off dur­ing night flights and safety an­nounce­ments, so your redeye flights would likely re­main as quiet as ever while you sleep.

Gogo, which re­cently re­leased Gogo Text & Talk, will leave the voice ser­vices choice up to the air­lines if the FCC and FAA ever al­low them.“The air­line is our cus­tomer first and fore­most, and this is an air­line call,”says ElDifrawi.“We have the tech­nol­ogy to en­able voice; we have it in our pri­vate jets. The air­lines have asked us not to al­low it, so we dis­able it.”

In­ter­net of Things in the Sky

Im­prove­ments in in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity change the ex­pe­ri­ence for pas­sen­gers when they use their per­sonal mo­bile de­vices. How­ever, th­ese im­prove­ments also change things be­hind the scenes for air­lines, al­low­ing them to com­mu­ni­cate with their teams on the ground. As a re­sult they can bet­ter mon­i­tor the health of their air­craft and even re­duce flight de­lays for pas­sen­gers.

“The in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity ser­vice also of­fers the po­ten­tial for im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween the plane and the ground through trans­mis­sion of real-time air­craft data for op­ti­miza­tion of cock­pit an­a­lyt­ics, mon­i­tor­ing of fuel con­sump­tion and evo­lu­tion of air­lines’ op­er­a­tions,”says Thom­son.“Other ap­plic ap­pli­ca­tions and serv ser­vices may in­clude m main­te­nance op­er­a­tions, cock­pit ser­vices, de­liv­ery man­age­ment, crew ser­vices, on­board sales and pas­sen­ger in­flight en­ter­tain­ment and con­nec­tiv­ity.” Dawkins likes the idea ide of the“nose-to­tail”In­ter­net-en­abled tail”In air­craft. It’s It’ a new spin on the In­ter­net of Th Things for air­planes that will cha change air­craft health mon­i­tor­ing. mon­i­tor­ing The tech­nol­ogy can enab en­able main­te­nance needs to be com­mu­ni­cated immed im­me­di­ately, which is im­por­tant impo for safety but cou could also mean fewer de de­lays for pas­sen­gers.

“It means not dis­rupt­ing ser­vice for pas­sen­gers in any­way, be­cause the main­te­nance crew can come in if needed to fix spe­cific items that t have al­ready been di­ag­nosed dur­ing the flight,”says Dawkins.

ElDifrawi sees op­por­tu­nity in this space to in­crease ef­fi­ciency of ev­ery part of the air­craft.“There’s a lot of talk about the con­nected plane,”he says.“Ev­ery piece is an ex­pen­sive piece of en­gi­neer­ing that only be­comes more ef­fec­tive when con­nected. Air­lines can get real-time in­for­ma­tion about health and per­for­mance of their jet.”

Con­nec­tiv­ity brings ben­e­fits for the pi­lots op­er­at­ing th­ese air­planes, too.“If you want to know about tur­bu­lence, weather, any type of dis­rup­tions in ad­vance, that all be­comes a re­al­ity,”ElDifr­wai adds.

App-ti­tude and Al­ti­tude

With the ad­vance­ment of mo­bile tech­nol­ogy and con­nec­tiv­ity, we might see seat-back mon­i­tors dis­ap­pear.“We’ve con­nected the cabin with full ser­vices, WiFi, cel­lu­lar ac­tiv­ity and OnAir Play,” says Dawkins.“Those three com­bi­na­tions are used by Philip­pine Air­lines, mak­ing them the first to have no seat­back in­flight en­ter­tain­ment.You use your per­sonal de­vice in­stead of a seat­back so­lu­tion.”

It’s worth not­ing that South­west has gone the same route, for­sak­ing seat­back screens in fa­vor of of­fer­ing in­flight en­ter­tain­ment piped di­rectly to pas­sen­gers’ de­vices. The stream­ing ser­vice is only avail­able on cer­tain South­west planes equipped with WiFi.

We might see a new mo­bile app in­dus­try rise out of con­nec­tiv­ity, ac­cord­ing to ElDifrawi.“We start talk­ing about all the dif­fer­ent providers on the ground who want their apps to work in the air,”he notes.“Im­proved con­nec­tiv­ity will be en­abling all kinds of ap­pli­ca­tions that ex­ist and ones that we haven’t even thought of yet. It will spur on a whole new in­dus­try of apps and ser­vices just for the air.”

We’ll likely start see­ing the in­dus­try of telemedicine be­come more ubiq­ui­tous in the air. Emi­rates has al­ready in­cor­po­rated it into its long-range air­craft, ac­cord­ing to Dawkins.“The long range air­craft with Emi­rates, all their air­crafts have telemedicine,”says Dawkins.“Their flights are linked with doc­tors on the ground, so they can d de­cide if they need to land or con­tinue fly­ing.”

The Peren­nial Run­ner-Up

Even with all th­ese im­prove­ments and im­pres­sive po­ten­tial for the fu­ture, there’s an in­ter­est­ing is­sue of in­flight WiFi: It’s al­ways play­ing catch up. In a cou­ple years, con­nec­tiv­ity in the air might match the con­nec­tiv­ity we have on the ground to­day, but it won’t match the con­nec­tiv­ity we’ll have on the ground two years hence.

In­ter­net in the sky will al­ways be the brides­maid and never the bride, and business trav­el­ers might stay frus­trated with in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity for a long time.

How­ever, you might find con­so­la­tion in the fact that your frus­tra­tion is a se­ri­ous in­cen­tive for tech­nol­ogy providers to con­tinue im­prove­ment.“Many air­lines fo­cus on business and first class as a com­pet­i­tive fea­ture and dif­fer­en­tia­tor, and strive to make the elite pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence as unique as pos­si­ble,”says Holle­man.“The in­tense fo­cus by air­lines on the elite pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence con­tin­u­ally drives change and forces Boe­ing and other tech­nol­ogy providers to stay abreast of in­no­va­tions that can be in­cor­po­rated into the fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

If you’re go­ing to be frus­trated, you can at least rest as­sured your frus­tra­tion is pro­duc­tive – and driv­ing in­no­va­tion.

Ir­ri­ta­tion aside, the out­look for in­flight con­nec­tiv­ity could at least be char­ac­ter­ized as op­ti­mistic, with a mixed blend of im­prove­ments com­ing from air­line man­u­fac­tur­ers, tele­com providers and in­flight wire­less so­lu­tions in 2015. If by 2016 we can ef­fort­lessly fire off count­less e-mails with mas­sive Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tions and Ex­cel spread­sheets at­tached, then we’ll have had a per­sonal vic­tory for business trav­el­ers ev­ery­where. BT

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