Consumer demand for inflight Wi-Fi services continues to grow in leaps and bounds. The airline industry is meeting it with more connected flights, faster connection speeds and new technologies to make it all work.
A solid connection is important for all passengers, but especially business and productivity passengers. A survey by corporate travel-management firm Egencia remarked that business passengers have high connectivity expectations.
“With availability of Wi-Fi connectivity continuing to have a direct impact on the overall air-travel experience, adopting the latest onboard Wi-Fi technology remains an effective way for airlines to distinguish their brand,” noted the International Air Travel Association in its 2016 Global Passenger Survey.
Airlines have heeded the call and taken up the cause. Overall, airlines are gradually adding connectivity services to their fleets. Available seat miles (ASMs) worldwide that “have at least a chance of Wi-Fi on board” increased from 31 percent in 2015 to 39 percent in 2016, according to Routehappy’s 2017 Wi-Fi Report. For U.S.-based airlines alone, ASMs rose from 77 percent to 83 percent over the same period.
Connection speeds are increasing more rapidly.
Todd Hill, Sr. Director for Global Satellite Capacity Planning at Panasonic Avionics, says passengers on the best-connected flights were able to access average speeds up to 12 Mbps in a speed test, with a maximum 20 Mbps burst speed. This offers business travelers better options for both work and play.
“Video and audio plays quickly. I know some people are participating in video conferences,” says Hill. “Once their work is done, business travelers do the same thing we all do. You can actually access Netflix.”
Live-action online games still are out of reach for the time being, though. Regardless of the technology, latency — i.e. the time it takes for data to travel between the aircraft and the network — is an issue. “In a first-person shooter game, you are dead before you even see the other person.” says Hill
“It has dropped the cost and increased the capacity,” — Todd Hill, Sr. Director for Global Satellite Capacity Planning at Panasonic Avionics
Much of the credit for improved service goes to a growing fleet of specialized communications satellites.
Over the past two years, operators have placed into orbit nearly a dozen high-throughput satellites (HTS) that use spot-beam technology to carry higher data loads than conventional satellites. For instance, last June Eutelsat launched a new high-powered satellite that connects air routes in a broad geographic area over the Asia-Pacific region.
Satellites have two distinct advantages over the air-to-ground (ATG) systems that dominated the early days of inflight Wi-Fi.
First, ATG relies upon a network of land-based cell towers, each with a limited geographic range. Aircraft flying over an ocean are too far away from towers, so ATG can only service overland flights. Satellites, hovering in geostationary orbit over the water, can bridge that gap between continents.
Satellites can provide overland service, as well. A few weeks before the Eutelsat launch, SES launched another one to support flights over North America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
Second, the newer satellites have faster connection speeds than the aging ATG networks. The former uses a 1 GHz spectrum versus only 4 MHz for the land-based networks, according to Hill. He likens it to different diameters in two garden hoses: “Even under high pressure you can get only so much water through [a narrow hose]. Satellite has a much bigger hose so you can get more water through it.”
Among geostationary satellites, power and throughput (the amount of data that can be transmitted) has skyrocketed from just 10 Gbps to 150 Gbps in under a decade, according to a white paper by Eutelsat.
“It has dropped the cost and increased the capacity,” says Hill. “Where it used to be a real premium just to send a few emails, now you can send emails, check Facebook and watch a movie for a reasonable price.”
Growing demand requires growing capabilities, placing the airline industry in a perpetual game of leapfrog with its customers.
By 2022, an estimated 14,419 commercial aircraft will offer Wi-Fi services, representing over half the global fleet, according to Juniper Research. By comparison, approximately 5,243 offer Wi-Fi today.
“As we move to our next-generation system, we are greatly increasing the capacity all along the path to remove several choke points, including faster Wi-Fi to the passengers’ devices, faster on-board modems and a huge increase in satellite capacity” says Hill.
The air passenger of the future will easily access live video-conferencing, high-definition videos and movies streamed directly from the Web, as well as data-rich social-media platforms like Snapchat and Facebook.
“There are a series of technologies coming that fall into two categories: LEO (low earth orbit) constellations and VHTS (very high throughput satellites) that will continue to change the satellite industry for at least the next 10 years,” says Hill. “There is no end point. None of us think we’re going to reach a certain point and be done.”
For more information, visit the www.theconnectedaircraft.com