From Left: Jon Norris, Panasonic Avionics; Anand Chari, Gogo; David Coiley, Inmarsat; Jags Burhm, Eutelsat; Maryann Simson, APEX Media. Image: Joe Leader

APEX Insight: How can the in-flight connectivity industry cut through confusion to deliver a more consistent product to airlines and passengers? APEX and IATA cooperated in a panel discussion at the World Passenger Symposium in Barcelona today, in a push to establish some standards.

APEX CEO Joe Leader kicked off today’s connectivity panel at IATA WPS, highlighting the airlines’ need “to compare apples to apples” when it comes to the solutions on offer. That level of simplicity in numbers can be challenging for service providers. Much like the airlines want to be more than just a seat flying from A to B, connectivity providers want to be seen as delivering solutions, not commoditized packages of bytes.

Jon Norris, senior director, Corporate Sales & Marketing at Panasonic Avionics, expressed concern about reducing the vendor selection process to a strict focus on bandwidth: “We’re going to ubiquitous connectivity on aircraft in the very near term. But connectivity is just a means to an end. If you only look at standardization from the view of being able to switch vendors you’re missing the point of all the other solutions and services that are enabled by connectivity.”

“We’re going to ubiquitous connectivity on aircraft in the very near term.” – Jon Norris, Panasonic Avionics

Still, the end-user performance is critical to the success of any implementation. Delivering a high quality, reliable experience to passengers on a consistent basis is the type of standardized measurement that the entire continuum of the connectivity space can benefit from.

Standardization about structural modifications to the aircraft “is not so much to swap out a vendor but to allow an airline to evolve connectivity,” said Gogo CTO Anand Chari. “The communications world, whether we like it or not, evolves an order of magnitude faster than airlines want to make changes on the aircraft.” Gogo’s approach to this is to measure bandwidth to the individual passenger, percentage of flight routes covered and the reliability of that service delivery.

The vendors agree that getting to a version of hardware standards that allows for changing as easily as consumers can change mobile phone providers is a step too far, reducing stability in the market to a point of failure. But common LRUs for on-board server or modem upgrades are more common today and already deliver some of those upgrade benefits.

David Coiley, VP Aviation at Inmarsat, cautioned against efforts to standardize the on-board hardware too much, suggesting it could potentially “stifle, slow and potentially kill some of the drivers” of progress in the very young connectivity industry’s growth. Counter to that point, the speakers agreed that common wiring plans and ARINC mounting standards are beneficial to all parties today, so long as they do not interfere with new product developments.

The ability to measure against common metrics is a valuable target for the industry; even during the on-stage debate, the discussion about the underlying technology platforms, rather than the end-user experience, heated up. It is no wonder than airlines and passengers remain confused as to what is really on offer.

In an attempt to continue this conversation, the APEX TECH Committee is in the process of creating a connectivity working group and identifying key players from different corners of the industry to share their perspectives and develop common goals to the benefit of airlines, service providers and passengers. The formal launch of the working group is set for the APEX TECH conference, to be held January 30-31, 2018, in Los Angeles, CA.