Air France forges IFC deal with telco; a sign of things to come?

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Last week, Air France published a press release announcing it plans to offer inflight connectivity on two short- and medium-haul Airbus A320s in partnership with French telco Orange. Reading the statement, one could be forgiven for thinking Orange is providing the underlying technology for this three-month trial, which is expected to begin next summer.

Air France says Orange Business Services will oversee “the technological solution – from the supply of the satellite network, which allows [the airline] to offer a Wi-Fi connection on board, to the portal accessible by passengers”. And Orange France deputy senior executive Delphine Ernotte Cunci adds that the arrangement “is a new demonstration of the Orange group’s capacity to innovate, which is mobilizing all its expertise in the area of networks, content and business”.

But while Air France’s relationship is indeed with Orange (which will act as service provider to the airline), Orange has turned to Global Eagle Entertainment to provide both its Ku-band connectivity system and all the back-end management to ensure the service works in the air. This is the undisclosed major international carrier that Global Eagle previously mentioned during its recent quarterly earnings conference call.

This type of arrangement isn’t necessarily unprecedented – after all, Panasonic’s airline customers can choose a wholesale or retail model and in either case can tap T-Mobile as ISP for a fee (some do, some don’t). But the fact that Orange is clearly the lead on the Air France contract is noteworthy, and gives us a good example of how some telcos may play a steering role in inflight connectivity going forward.

Indeed, a BVA study carried out among 2,000 Air France customers – and cited by the airline – revealed that passengers are looking for simple inflight Wi-Fi access “free of engagement”.  And Global Eagle CEO Dave Davis hinted at such symbiotic relationships in September, when he told analysts and investors that, “Generally, I think it makes sense for telco companies to offer inflight connectivity as part of their suite of product offerings to a passenger. So in other words, I have AT&T on the ground; if I get in the air, it works. There is logic to that.”

It’s not immediately clear if Orange will turn to its own satellite partners to provide Ku capacity for the inflight connectivity service or if will leverage Global Eagle and its relationship with SES. If Orange goes direct, it might make the process a little more complicated on all ends.

It’s important to note that Global Eagle counts Air France as a customer for its content services (it manages Air France’s entire catalogue of inflight movies on international flights). So if Air France ultimately opts to offer Orange across its short- and medium-haul fleet, and Global Eagle supports the contract, then Global Eagle will be positioned to offer creative integrated IFEC packages to the European carrier, and perhaps drive Beats Music-type sponsorships to boot.

Air France, meanwhile, previously trialled OnAir’s inflight mobile connectivity product operating over Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service. And the carrier has been trialling Panasonic Ku on 777 aircraft since 2013.

To Air France, “it’s not a matter of if the airlines will go for connectivity or not, but when”, Pierre-Alexandre Calonne, IFC innovation manager at the airline told Avionics Magazine this week. “We see that people want more and more connectivity and are a bit impatient to deploy the system on the rest of the fleet,” he told the publication in reference to the Panasonic Ku trial on long-haul 777 aircraft.

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