Telefonix seeks to snatch Kontron’s crown in wireless space

Inflight entertainment and connectivity is an incestuous business. It’s not uncommon for managers to jump ship to rival firms – or leave the industry entirely only to regret the decision and desperately seek a way back in. But while musical chairs are to be expected in any fast-growing sector, RGN will cop to being a tad surprised at the recent announcement that IFEC supplier Telefonix has managed to lure Alan Manns from Kontron, the leading provider of servers and wireless access points for commercial aircraft cabins. Sufficiently intrigued, we interviewed Manns in his new role as Telefonix director of business development, aerospace division, and learned that the firm is working to become “the premium provider of IFEC hardware” to support the BYOD movement, and wants to leave Kontron in the dust. But Kontron is unfazed, telling RGN that it sees competition from companies like Telefonix as a healthy aspect to its own growth in the aviation business.

Telefonix actually began devising a plan to try and dominate the space a while ago. Last year, it hired longtime industry veteran Jim Costello as CTO. Costello had worked for nearly six years as VP, engineering at Global Eagle’s Row 44 unit (and was part of the original Row 44 team). Prior to that, Costello was a VP at Verizon Airfone. “The Telefonix team, including president Michael Kuehn and Jim Costello, have been putting together a really strong team in the IFE and connectivity world. I worked with Jim while at Kontron [when he was at Row 44] and both Michael and Jim worked together in the Airfone days,” explains Manns. While it’s fair to say that Kontron “has an early lead”, in terms of market share, and indeed a “leg up in helping to create” the market for wireless VOD on board aircraft, says Manns, “moving forward, Telefonix’s strong avionics capability has the ability to take it to the next level”. And “the future is with Telefonix”, he insists (noting that the apparent reduced role of VT Miltope in the commercial space could also provide opportunities).

One of Telefonix’s key partners is Gogo. Last year Telefonix announced that it has been selected to develop Gogo’s advanced airborne server, which has gone on all of Alaska Airlines’ planes and “is going on every single new 2Ku system out there”, says Manns. “If you look at the scope and forecasting that Gogo has for 2Ku, you get an idea of what those numbers look like. I think from the reports we’ve seen – and I don’t think we see anything that you don’t – 2Ku for us looks like a strong contender. There are definitely some advantages for the [2Ku] antenna… and it’s exactly what Gogo needed to expand globally. For anyone to underestimate that, would do so at their own peril.” Gogo spokesman Steve Nolan confirms that the so-called ACPU-2 server will be “on all 2Ku aircraft”, though he notes that Gogo works with a variety of different suppliers – including Kontron and Honeywell – for IFEC hardware.

Telefonix also counts Panasonic Avionics and Thales as long-time customers, but not necessarily for servers and WAPs. The company got its start by developing cradles and cord reels, and later media loading devices and Android passenger control units (in partnership with design firm PDT). It knows the embedded IFE model “will be around for a while, but it’s not what we’re basing our future on; BYOD is a big part of our future”, says Manns. That’s because wireless solutions for BYOD “is something passengers can expect as a baseline in the future across the full flying experience”, notes a Telefonix spokeswoman, pointing to Telefonix’s Summit line of open architecture BYOD hardwarewhich is firmly directed at the B2B space.

“Of course, when you look at North American marketplace you can’t ignore strong companies like Global Eagle and Gogo, and if you want to be successful with hardware manufacturers, you have to be in conversation with those folks,” adds Manns. Which begs the question – is Telefonix vying for Kontron’s business at Global Eagle? The company demurs in saying outright, but believes its new Summit product line makes a compelling case for attracting new business. Its new server, for instance, will enable airlines to “start storing huge chunks” of video libraries, “terabytes of storage on aircraft”, to support a less expensive approach than allowing passengers to stream videos over a broadband connection.

Kontron, meanwhile, is welcoming the competition. The company’s new EVP – business unit avionics, transportation & defense, Kevin Rhoads, tells RGN that there are ample examples in IFEC and in other industries where innovation can be stagnated when there is not space in the market for multiple competitors.

“One of the strengths of Kontron versus our competitors is our ability to leverage the building blocks and core technologies developed for multiple industries. The key components of our avionics products such as processors and network switches are designed and manufactured by Kontron in-house design teams. This gives us a significant advantage in the launch of new products with the latest technology and the ability to extend product  lifetime,” he says.

“Kontron is a global company with facilities located in most high technology regions around the world. This gives us the ability to provide local sales, technical and program management support to our customers. Kontron Avionics products are deployed on 3500 aircraft worldwide, and the ability to provide local in-country support is a key part of our strategy.”

As part of its continuing growth overseas, Kontron this week announced the launch of its new onboard wifi system at the APEX Expo, partnering with Chinese LCC Spring Airlines. Developed in conjunction with a key China software partner, Fair Link Century, Kontron obtained the necessary approvals from the FAA and the Civil Aviation Authority of China to install and operate the system on an Airbus A320. The system provides wireless IFE and other services to passengers on this airline and represents a key step in Kontron’s plan to offer open architecture systems to the IFEC market. Also this week, Kontron was chuffed to learn that BAE Systems’ wireless IFE service – which uses Kontron hardware and Global Eagle Entertainment software – could be the first in the world to support the streaming of early window movie content to passengers’ own devices, after BAE secured approval from two Hollywood studios.

But with the competition breathing down its neck, there can be no resting on its laurels. Kontron recently appointed Jim VandeSteeg to lead and direct its Avionics Business Line. VandeSteeg brings more than 27 years of aviation experience to Kontron, including a stint at IFEC giant Panasonic Avionics. In his new strategic role, VandeSteeg will leverage his proven success in identifying new business opportunities, provide strategy and policy development and customer relationship management in both domestic and global markets.

“Jim is a big win for Kontron. His years of relevant industry experience at Panasonic Avionics Corporation, Honeywell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins will boost our prospects for significant sustainable growth,” explains Rhoads.

With new, highly experienced talent on board at Telefonix and Kontron, it’s Game On for these two wireless hardware providers. And each of them couldn’t be more pleased, as the streaming market explodes.