The AIX team sat down with aerospace thought-leaders, market disruptors and established companies to discuss how Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) can keep up with changing passenger expectations.
The team spoke with Greg Mashlan, Head of Commercial Aviation, OneWeb.
What are your predictions for connectivity in the cabin in 2023?
“I predict that 2023 will be a milestone year for OneWeb and a watershed year for inflight connectivity.
OneWeb has now completed the active constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites needed to deliver truly global coverage and is already delivering service to businesses and communities in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and other countries above 50° North.
We expect global services for fixed and maritime customers to be activated later this year – with aviation services being available from very early in 2024. We continue to work with our distribution and technology partners to develop and deploy an inflight connectivity solution ‘for the aviation industry, by the aviation industry’. We’re working with OEMs on linefit solutions and expect our first retrofit STCs to be granted before the end of the year.
In the meantime, unfortunately, the outlook for passenger connectivity for the remaining months of 2023, remains more of the same – often inconsistent and frustrating connected experiences.”
How do you see in-flight connectivity evolving in the next five years?
“The demand for connectivity has increased dramatically, partly because the pandemic forced everyone to become more connected in order to cope with the isolation of lockdown, and partly as a result of the increasing number of connected applications that control almost every aspect of our daily lives.
These new behaviours have been learnt – and will not be unlearnt, it is therefore only reasonable to assume that the demand and expectation of having inflight connectivity is going to grow. The availability and performance of inflight connectivity is going to become an increasingly important factor in a selection of an airline.
Euroconsult recently predicted that in-flight aviation connectivity would grow by a factor of more than 10, from 90 gigabits per second (Gbps) in 2022 to more than one terabit per second (Tbps) by 2031.
As the airline industry has had a decade or more of the current Satellite options the advancement of LEO and newer high capacity satellite bandwidth will help drive the airlines toward a Free or charge, or Freemium model as seen with the first mover airlines in the USA. This will have considerable flow on effects for all airlines over the next 5 years as this will become just another “hygiene” must have for airlines.
At OneWeb we believe the days of measuring inflight connectivity through Kbps and even Mbps are numbered. With the high-speed, low latency connectivity our network will be able to deliver both globally and consistently, the inflight connectivity narrative will be altered forever.
We often talk about the 5C’s of connectivity – coverage, connection, capacity, consistency and community – and OneWeb delivers on them all. However, what OneWeb truly delivers is an inflight connectivity experience that is limited only by the users’ imagination, not the available bandwidth.
Airlines and their passengers will, with OneWeb, forget about bandwidth, forget about coverage – so seamless, so consistent, and so normal and almost unremarkable the experience will be.
We will also see an evolution in terms of the type of aircraft on which broadband inflight connectivity becomes possible – and also expected. Today, the main barrier to connectivity on regional jets has been the size and weight of the hardware needed.
The larger mechanically steered antenna that are needed to connect with GEO stationary satellites are simply too bulky and too heavy to consider fitting to a regional aircraft such as a CRJ or Embraer 170. Thanks to OneWeb and our technology partner Stellar Blu, a next generation Electronically Steered Antenna (ESA), is now available for smaller regional jets.
These terminals are significantly lighter and smaller than existing aviation antennas – and without the need for a radome have a substantially lower profile. Yet, despite the size the performance is far from diminished with high throughput capabilities of 195/32 Mbps (DL/UL).
The next 5-years will also witness the evolution of hybrid inflight connectivity offering. OneWeb is already enjoying advanced discussions with many airlines, together with our distribution partners, on offering a hybrid solution that leverages the benefits of both LEO and GEO.
The ESA antenna being developed by Stellar Blu are LEO/GEO compatible – the first of its type for our industry– as recently demonstrated by Intelsat on their CRJ aircraft.
The ability to integrate with existing GEO constellations will provide airlines with flexibility and peace of mind as the new LEO capabilities of the OneWeb network are deployed and proven, and provide unbroken connectivity over territories where for regulatory reasons, OneWeb is unable to provide service.
The best way to provide airlines and passengers with faster, more consistent and truly global broadband service is with a variety technologies and partnerships, leveraging the power of existing GEO networks and augmenting them with the clear benefits of LEO is the way forward.
We’re witnessing the dawn of a new era for mobile connectivity where new technologies as well as new flexible thinking and collaboration will finally meet the needs to today’s digital airline and digital passenger.
This new dawn is just on the horizon, as demonstrated by the recent Alaskan Airlines announcement that it plans to be the first global airline to offer high-speed Wi-Fi on regional jets using Intelsat’s ESA which, having been developed by Stellar Blu, also has the capability to communicate with OneWeb’s LEO satellites in addition to Inteslat’s geostationary (GEO) satellites.”
Some estimations have put the “take-rate” for on-board Wi-Fi at just 6%, with some lamenting the poor connection and inability to stream content.
How do you see the role of Wi-Fi changing in the cabin going forward?
“The OneWeb Connected Passenger Report, published at AIX in 2022, found that 7 out of 10 respondents claim they’ve never tried inflight Wi-Fi citing perceived unreliability, cost and pre-established coping mechanisms as their reason for not connecting.
Furthermore, 43% of those who have ‘connected’ called the experience frustrating. This level of experience would certainly impact the adoption, or ‘take-rate’.
Take Rates have been consistently in the high single digitals or low tweens for many years on most airlines, with the biggest factors being the frustrating user experience and of course the costs.
When Freemium models are deployed (where you get for example messaging for free and pay to upgrade to streaming) the take rates jump to the early 20’s to the 30 percent take rates.
The move to a full free model where using the internet services on aircraft is akin to using Wi-fi in a hotel we can expect to see take rates in the 65% range.
However, the key to sustaining and improving the ‘take-rate’ is a consistent, home-equivalent connected experience, where users can be as entertained or as productive as they would be on the ground. OneWeb delivers this experience and delivers it globally, even over the polar routes or the widest oceans which to date have remained a connectivity blind spot.
The low latency connectivity inherent in our low earth orbit solution, which is orbiting at just 1,200km from earth’s surface, as opposed to 36,000 kms for our GEO satellite cousins, delivers a far richer, immersive experience – without annoying lag, buffering pages and out of synch audio.
What’s more with our ESA solutions for all types of aircraft from wide-bodied, single aisle and even regional jets, OneWeb is able to deliver the utopia of a consistent connected passenger experience across fleets and across route networks.
Airlines will now be able to offer passengers the same high performance inflight connectivity on all their routes and all their aircraft opening up additional opportunities for partnerships, subscription packages and loyalty schemes. All of which should see the ‘take-rate’ improve dramatically.”
The demand to stream content including on short and medium flights has proliferated.
How will airlines ensure they continue to meet this demand?
“There is little doubt that passenger demand for connectivity is as real on a short and medium haul flights as it is on a long-haul service – perhaps even more given the lack of other options such as seat back inflight entertainment. With over a terabyte per second of usable capacity across the global network, OneWeb has more than enough bandwidth to support the streaming behaviour of today’s passenger.
The barrier to adoption here is not technology but building a robust business case to support the investment. The influence of inflight connectivity on passenger choice of airlines is only going to increase – and those airlines who are late to adopt an IFC strategy risk losing market share to more connected alternatives.
In this way, passenger expectation will provide the ‘push’ needed to create the business case for the implementation of the inflight connectivity strategy, whilst the value driven offering of OneWeb and our distribution partners, should make the numbers more palatable.
Our Distribution Partners, Panasonic, Intelsat, Hughes and Eutelsat have developed innovative and creative packages which give the airlines far more flexibility to scale and tailor their IFC offering based on levels of connectivity, class of travel, loyalty status and a host of other variables.”
The EU commission has unveiled plans for airlines to implement 5G technologies onboard for passengers.
Do you see this revolutionising onboard connectivity?
“First and foremost, the EU plan is to ‘allow’ airlines to provide their passengers aboard flights in the EU the ability to use their mobile phones to the maximum of their capacity and features – where available this will mean 5G connectivity. The question remains who is going to pay for the connectivity, how much and of course the question of consistency and coverage.
The 5G network in Europe is far from complete and it remains to be seen what the performance will be like, especially over remote areas or large bodies of water. This is unlikely to be THE solution that solves IFC in Europe, however, it’s certainly a great move forward for the EU and their citizens.”
Any other comments or insight you would like to share around the topics of digitalisation and connectivity?
“Discussions surrounding the connectivity of an aircraft usually revolve around the Wi-Fi experience that enables passengers to work, stream their favourite content or bombard jealous friends with endless selfies. But in-flight connectivity continually promises so much more.
The use of data for onboard retail, predictive maintenance, flight optimisation, fuel efficiency and customer relationship management are but a few examples.
Unfortunately, to date, these promises have remained largely unfulfilled, or certainly not to the degree that commercial or operational benefits have been materially met.
OneWeb will deliver a global, consistent and value-driven connectivity solution that will fulfil airline’s every connected aircraft dream. The aviation industry is on the cusp of a data revolution that will transform almost every aspect of an airlines operation.
Digitalisation is proliferating throughout our industry and with good reason – from LCCs to fully established legacy carriers, there are so many benefits to going digital. In 2017, Oliver Wyman estimated that new connectivity and advance analytics of a ‘connected aircraft’ could save the airline industry $5 billion annually.
At OneWeb we are thinking much bigger, in terms of the connected airline. If we consider an aircraft to be but one part of an airline’s ecosystem, arguably the most important (and certainly the most expensive) part, then it stands to reason it should be fully connected, absolutely everywhere that aircraft flies – only then, can that aircraft be part of a connected airline that can truly harness the power of digitalisation.
Imagine the power of real-time CRM, maintenance, asset management, crew management, fuel management etc – not just for an aircraft, but consolidated and built into REAL value derived from the holistic airline picture. Let us not ignore the environmental benefits, these are also substantial and highly significant.
The best part of this picture is that it’s here and now. All these things are within our capability to deliver. This decade should see not only the rapid implementation of IFC solutions to match actual requirements, but also the end of the trend of tedious bi-annual meetings about recommendations and standards that take decades to implement – often obsolete by the time they are delivered!
The IFC industry is moving on rapidly and we owe it to ourselves to serve our airline partners to change the way we deliver, responsibly. The connected airline is achievable, mutually valuable and sustainable. OneWeb is changing the way it will be delivered; limited by imagination, not by available bandwidth.”