Connectivity is in the air

August 21 2017

It may seem perverse, but I enjoy the eight or more hours it takes to cross the Atlantic. Having done this almost all my working life, I look forward to the space, free from demands on my time, the absence of emails, and all of the daily issues that intrude.

This is because long haul air travel offers something special: the freedom to think, write, sit back and even take long-term life decisions without interruption.

For this reason, I will not be among those eagerly awaiting the appearance before long of high-speed lower cost broadband on most flights in North America, Europe, the Caribbean and Central America, and across the Atlantic.

That said, it is apparent from numerous aviation industry reports that seamless connectivity in the air is now at the forefront of the minds of passengers and those who run some of the world’s major airlines.

Although free or low cost in-flight wi-fi is presently offered on identified routes and locations by JetBlue, Emirates, Norwegian, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Air China and others, it is at present slow and to some extent unreliable, as it is based on an aircraft’s downlink to multiple towers along the routes that they fly.

In the coming decade, however, all this will change as the on-plane technology is upgraded and a new generation of on board wi-fi emerges that enables fast connections and streaming though aircraft uplinks to geo-stationary satellites.

Not only is this expected to revolutionise how we spend our time while travelling but, according to some industry experts, will see the end of airline provided in-flight entertainment systems as it becomes possible to stream, for a fee, or free in First Class, Netflix, Amazon and material from other new content providers of everything from movies to live news.

While the technology is not yet commercially available, recent announcements by Inmarsat the London-based company which owns and operates maritime geo-positioning satellites, make clear that their objective is to provide some of the leading technical providers of wi-fi to airlines – Honeywell and GoGo –  with a high speed on-demand wi-fi service in the US, Europe, across the Atlantic and elsewhere.

For its part ViaSat, the US rival to Inmarsat, recently launched a satellite, ViaSat-2, using the Ariane space launch facility at Kourou in French Guiana, which is now moving into a geostationary orbit. The aim, the company says, is to significantly improve speeds, ‘and expand the footprint of broadband services across North America, Central America, the Caribbean’. It has also announced that the satellite will provide coverage for primary Atlantic aviation and maritime routes between North America and Europe.

According to Inmarsat, its ultimate aim is to allow airline passengers internet access at speeds up to 100 megabits per second (mbps). Even if such speeds are some way away, on board uplinks to satellites will mean, once satellite services are available, that presently slow onboard download speeds of between 12mbps and 28mpbs and signal loss from terrestrially based masts, will become a thing of the past.

Inmarsat also says that once aircraft can connect with satellites not only will be their passengers have relatively fast access to emails and browsing but it will relieve airlines of the presently large costs they incur in maintaining and running costly in-flight entertainment systems.

What is less clear is how the new onboard technology will be financed. Some airlines such as Lufthansa presently make a small internet access charge where the service is available, but recent trade press reports indicate that in future some airlines may opt for the fee to be paid directly to the service provider while others will establish their own tariffs.

How long be will be before fast wi-fi is the new normal also depends on resolving whether the presently limited number of satellites which with launch costs they come in at between US$50m and US$ 400m, will be able to cope, and the slow pace at which aircraft are being equipped with enabling technology.

As for me, I still intend to sit back enjoying eight hours untroubled by either the world I am travelling to or coming from.