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Wireless IFE: why airlines must embrace the evolving passenger experience

Wireless technology has triggered a revolution in in-flight entertainment, enabling cutting-edge content in movies, TV shows, music and games, to be streamed from an on-board server to personal electronic devices (PEDs).


This new technology has enjoyed a rapid roll-out in comparison to the traditionally conservative pace of the airline industry. From American Airlines’ ground-breaking ‘Entertainment On Demand’ programme, offering movies and TV shows to passengers on a pay-per-view basis, to Panasonic and Qantas’ recent eXW innovation, airlines have been taking the opportunity to experiment, developing an array of inventive solutions along the way.


What’s next?

The general stance remains that most major airlines will offer connectivity at some point during the next 10 years, with IMS Research predicting that in 2021, 9,000 aircraft in service will be kitted out with a wireless IFE solution; a staggering 1,000% increase from 2011.


At present, in-flight internet provider Gogo estimates that only around 6-7% of passengers are prepared to pay for Wi-Fi. But industry experts predict that as technical advances on the ground progress at great speed, causing in-flight capability to improve and bandwidth to expand, the scope of entertainment available to passengers will cause this figure to rise dramatically.


But what of the pressures on connectivity and bandwidth that this swift uptake will create? There’s no doubt that this surge in capacity requirements will lead to fast-growing usage of satellite communications in the aerospace sector. In fact, the increase in traffic is expected to have a compound annular growth rate (CAGR) of 42% over the next 10 years, carrying close to 30 gigabits per second of traffic over commercial Ku and Ka-band satellites by 2022, one-third of which is expected over oceanic regions.


To coincide with this surge in demand, planned launches of new generation High Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems, such as Inmarsat Global Xpress and Intelsat Epic, will provide expanded capabilities compared to traditional satellites.


Before long, people will be able to comment on Facebook about the film they’re watching at 35,000ft without a hitch. And Russell Lemieux, executive director of APEX believes this is what passengers want, saying, "More than anything, consumers want options. Some want to lean back and watch a movie, some want to conduct business online, and others would rather play a game… [and] when you factor in all built-in options and the exploding trend of personal devices, the possibilities really are endless.”


A developing marketplace

Of course, whilst wireless IFE will provide huge opportunities for suppliers to the industry, it could pose a significant threat to those players who fail to react to the changing market dynamics. Hollywood and the big film studios have already stumbled across issues with this new technology. It is estimated that airlines won’t see their trademark early-window content become available for use on personal tablets for another five years at least, due to security concerns of streaming content over an unencrypted connection.


But whilst some bodies will undoubtedly struggle with this transition, the new technology is paving the way for smaller, pioneering companies to enter the US$600m content market. In particular, the in-flight connectivity sector has established itself in the marketplace as a number of key players such as Row44, OnAir, AeroMobile and Gogo have quickly acquired business across the globe.


What’s more, the low-cost, simple installation of a wireless system significantly broadens the scope for narrow-body and domestic aircraft to better their entertainment offering for their passengers.


Gogo recently reported that the second most popular use of in-flight wireless was to sign-in to work e-mails and access reports and documents, suggesting that wireless technology could be revolutionary for close-range business travel and not just the international arena, the traditional heavyweight in IFE.


Smaller airlines have begun developing apps that can be installed onto portable devices, providing a wide range of services, such as shopping, film, inter-passenger communication (see Virgin’s new dating service), and most recently, live television.


A concept particularly popular with sports fans, the prospect of accessing live television in-flight is just another example of how wireless IFE is closing the gap between everyday life and the flying experience. Row 44 has been a particular frontrunner in introducing live TV to aircraft, announcing a deal with America's National Football League so passengers need never miss a game.

And with airlines garnering an increasingly captive audience, there’s renewed potential for cashing in on advertising revenue, which, for low-cost airlines in particular, could be a real enabling factor in allowing them to enter the IFE arena.


A new kind of in-flight service

For all it brings to the aviation market, wireless IFE is still hindered by unanswered questions.


Whilst the prevalence of PEDs in everyday life has grown remarkably over the past few tears, and are a common sight in aircraft cabins, we’re still a long way from 100% penetration. And even if all members of the family did have their own device to hand, battery life can be limited, so the question is then how airlines propose to cater for the surge in demand for power.


Airbus' aircraft interiors marketing manager, Patrick Candelier, argues that wireless technology on-board an aircraft is not IFE, but a new type of service. Indeed, wireless is enjoying substantial uptake in conjunction with portable and seat-back solutions, but its limitations dictate that it is not a stand-alone option – at least not yet, anyway.


With enabling technology rapidly emerging, it seems in-flight entertainment, which started life as a distraction for passengers as they travelled from A to B, is becoming increasingly close to replicating everyday activities. This might seem like a dramatic advance, but with constant connectivity becoming consumer expectation, this is the next frontier of in-flight entertainment, whether the airlines want it or not.


29 May 2013


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