Illustration by Nicolás Venturelli.

APEX Insight: Could standardization help level the playing field for airlines in the IFEC space? Eutelsat, Global Eagle, Gogo, Inmarsat, Panasonic Avionics, Viasat and industry veteran Peter Lemme weigh in.

When it comes to in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC), airlines are spoiled for choice. However, systems are measured by a variety of metrics, few of which align. Babar Rahman, Qatar Airways’ senior manager of Global Sponsorships, CSR and In-Flight Entertainment/Connectivity, recently commented on the array of connectivity options, and how difficult it is for airlines to understand the more technical details. How can providers make it less confusing for them? And, more importantly, can industry-wide standards become part of the IFEC ecosystem, replacing the alphabet soup of frequency bands with metrics that speak more directly to airlines and passengers?

What Airlines Want

Despite varying marketing mumbo jumbo surrounding frequencies, bandwidths and satellite systems, providers display a common desire to define the metrics that matter most to airline customers. Gogo CTO Anand Chari says that three main areas drive this discussion: “We know that what matters to airlines is the speed delivered to each passenger device, system availability and coverage of global flight routes.” Global Eagle’s SVP Aviation, Per Noren, adds, “The most important metrics for airline customers to consider are user experience (beyond speed) and consistency of performance over time.”

“What matters to airlines is the speed delivered to each passenger device, system availability and coverage of global flight routes.” – Anand Chari, Gogo

Noren’s suggestion to look beyond the megabits measurement is important to consider for developing standards around network performance. Megabits within a network, to an aircraft or even to an individual passenger might be less important than the much harder to measure “experience” of the passenger.

Viasat’s VP Mobile Connectivity, Don Buchman, agrees, adding that it is important to ensure that the kit installed today lasts for the duration of the agreement an airline has invested in. “We don’t want to write a contract where seven years later you’re still meeting your obligations, but the passengers aren’t happy because something has fundamentally changed in the Internet,” he says. “You’ve got to be building the experience factor into it as well.”

“We don’t want to write a contract where seven years later you’re still meeting your obligations, but the passengers aren’t happy.” – Don Buchman, Viasat

Indeed, most metrics today account for what a passenger successfully consumes while paying little attention to what a passenger was unable to load or chose not to pursue because a service was blocked or a previous experience of poor performance dissuaded such efforts.

A Hard Sell?

Does a standardized hardware configuration deliver a better product for airlines and passengers? Aircraft manufacturers like commonality to reduce complexity, while airlines enjoy the potential to mix and match suppliers. And IFEC suppliers generally support some commonality of systems, though not unconditionally.

Gogo’s Chari suggests that “commonality in characteristics like size, power, cabling, mounting and installation options” would benefit the industry, helping “seat manufacturers, device manufacturers, IFEC service providers and airlines in terms of innovation and costs.” Deciding on what those power and cabling standards might be, however, is a delicate balancing act.

Industry veteran Peter Lemme is intimately familiar with the push for standardization on the hardware side, having chaired the committee that developed the ARINC 791 standard for connectivity antenna mounts, wiring and other aircraft equipment. It is a standard rarely followed precisely, but a sufficient number of players follow it closely enough that it is now part of nearly all implementation discussions. Could similar standards be extended to IFEC wiring or seatback integration?

“IFEC suppliers must reveal enough of their design to achieve consensus on form, fit and function,” Lemme says. “While one manufacturer may appeal for changes that favor its own parochial interests, it must convince the community that the change is worthwhile.” Driving the community to such decisions is a slow and thankless task; while many talk of the value, it is unclear that anyone is willing to commit to such an effort without some external influence.

Inmarsat’s David Coiley warns that efforts to develop strict standards for onboard hardware have the potential to “stifle, slow and possibly kill some of the drivers” of progress in the industry’s growth. And Global Eagle’s Noren similarly cautions against prescribing too many technical details for IFEC system design. “All providers and customers will likely want to maintain flexibility in versions of components and to offer differentiation in software and service solutions,” he says. “The key with the ability to standardize is the expectation that the march of technology will maintain a logical, organized pace.”

“The key with the ability to standardize is the expectation that the march of technology will maintain a logical, organized pace.”– Per Noren, Global Eagle

Ultimately, the push for standardization must come not from a desire for airlines to swap vendors on a whim, but for vendors to deliver better and interoperable solutions to airlines and passengers. As Panasonic Avionics’ Jon Norris says, “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.”

The 90% Endgame

The next generation of installations will bring the number of connected aircraft to 12,500 – nearly half of the entire global fleet, according to SITAONAIR. With that eventual outcome in mind, when it comes to making decisions about in-flight connectivity, service begins to outweigh hardware. Indeed, Eutelsat’s SVP Aero-Global Mobility, Jags Burhm, is looking beyond hardware standardization for what’s coming next in the industry. “At some point, when nine out of 10 aircraft are equipped, it is really not a hardware game,” he says. “It is about monetizing connectivity for efficiency and empowering the passenger. The question becomes, do you wait it out or decide to be an early adopter because you feel in your gut that getting ahead of the curve will mean reaping monetary benefits sooner than the competition?”

Making the decision to equip now, with minimal established standardization, is risky, Lemme says. However, as consumer demands and the pace of technology move far faster than industry standards can evolve, taking the connectivity plunge is becoming a necessity for some airlines.

Soft standards that guide rather than regulate hardware and implementation could be valuable to industry stakeholders, as long as they are designed to evolve as technology changes. For now, one thing is clear: Developing parameters for the technology itself won’t do much good until vendors can reach a consensus on how to speak of their offerings to airlines.   

 

“Option Overload,” was originally published in the 8.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.