US airline mulls ‘going all the way’ with Aircell wireless IFE, Ka-band connectivity

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Published: May 6, 2011

At least one US airline is considering “going all the way” with Aircell by offering the firm’s suite of commercial products, including its new wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE) solution plus Ka-band satellite-based high-speed Internet in addition to its air-to-ground (ATG)-supported Wi-Fi in the domestic United States.

Such a deal could prove a game-changer in the world of in-flight entertainment and connectivity, potentially giving some carriers pause before installing embedded IFE systems.

“We have someone looking at fleet-wide connectivity, international and domestic, and wireless IFE,” Aircell senior vice-president airline solutions Fran Phillips told ATI and Flightglobal today in an interview.

“One thing I hope I can say we’ve done over the last few years is build really strong relationships with our customers. We try to be flexible and listen to their needs and be a good partner to them, and as a result, we get a lot of good feedback from them and interest in new products and services that we’re rolling out. We have at least one if not more than one that are interested in going all the way with us,” she added.

Counting AirTran Airways, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Virgin America among its customers Aircell has seen rapid adoption of its ATG connectivity service Gogo in the United States. The Chicago-headquartered firm recently threw its hat into the international arena, saying it will offer a global Ka-band satellite-based connectivity solution to operators when Inmarsat’s Global Xpress service becomes available in 2013, and will make a Ku-band solution available to its airline partners in the interim.

The proverbial ante was upped this week when American Airlines announced plans to fit the rest of its domestic fleet – some 93 Boeing 757s and up to 50 more MD-80s – and begin testing Aircell’s in-flight streaming video product on two Boeing 767-200s.

The new IFE product, which will be tested starting early summer, will allow customers to wirelessly stream content such as movies and TV shows from an in-flight library to their personal Wi-Fi-enabled devices during flight. Various price points will be tested during the trial.

Offering wireless IFE represents a departure from Aircell’s prior strategy to provide a video download service to passengers.

Explains Phillips: “We were previously going to have passengers download content to their own device. Last fall, we changed our architecture because when we first started building it, we didn’t think there would be sufficient bandwidth to stream video in the cabin wirelessly. But as technology changed, we decided to change to a streaming model. Also, getting people to download a player first seemed like an obstacle for access.

“We feel like it’s a much better product now. When we first launched Wi-Fi, we built in nearly all the capability to do this. We always intended to roll out a video side. We focused on Wi-Fi in the beginning but now that that’s up and running we’re coming up with a second leg of the stool. So for all the [Gogo] Wi-Fi equipped airplanes out there, they are ready to go with video. The only addition required is the content loader and the software, but we can add that in fairly easily. We think we can roll it out very quickly. It’s a super easy install. It’s probably going to take just a couple of hours to get the content loader on.”

From a cost standpoint, Aircell’s wireless IFE solution “is certainly a small fraction of what it would take to put a full embedded IFE system on and it is a revenue-sharing model like the Wi-Fi so basically it turns what is a pretty big cost centre into a modest profit centre because not only do airlines invest a lot of money in embedded IFE, but they also have to spend a lot of money for content”.

She adds: “Of course [with wireless IFE] the studios get their cut, but once this takes off there will be something significant that gets left over, and shared between Aircell and the airline.”

Aircell has already inked “a few contracts” with studios and continues to work on more. “I think this announcement will be helpful in getting us through the last couple ones that we need,” says the Aircell executive, noting that “certainly the technology is all there for games and music” in addition to movies and television programming.

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