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Lofty Connections

Published: 02/09/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » September 2014 » LifeStyles »

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The most anxiety-inducing moment for a business traveler might be finding out your six-hour, 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 next-generation 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 red-eye 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 applications and services may include maintenance operations, cockpit services, delivery management, crew services, onboard sales and passenger inflight entertainment and connectivity.”

Dawkins likes the idea of the “nose-to-tail” Internet-enabled aircraft. It’s a new spin on the Internet of Things for airplanes that will change aircraft health monitoring. The technology can enable maintenance needs to be communicated immediately, which is important for safety but could also mean fewer 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 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 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. 

By Maggie Squires

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