AeroMobile expands globally, awaits US voice ruling

With an increasing number of airlines installing inflight connectivity on their aircraft, wifi has become the default method of getting online in the air. But with most airlines requiring individual logins for their own systems, is now the time for Panasonic’s AeroMobile’s 3G system inside the cabin to make a play for ease of use, despite strong resistance in some quarters to the prospect of voice calls on the aircraft?

“The phone system continues to be deployed, operating now in over 500 aircraft across 20 airlines,” AeroMobile CEO Kevin Rogers tells Runway Girl Network, “roughly equally split between Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe.” North America and China are the exceptions, for regulatory reasons.

In the US, Rogers says, “I think the American airlines will wait for the DOT to finish their work. When they finish their work, I’m hoping their conclusion will be that the airlines can choose whether or not they offer voice. And at the moment the voice is just over wifi, and they’ll choose whether or not they can offer that. Once the DOT is finished, the FCC will then kick in and actually look at its own regulation if they permit the use of cellphones on an aircraft. What happens in reality is that there is always an association of voice to the cell phone. But what we do with our phones most of the time is nothing to do with voice whatsoever. It’s just another form of connectivity and a billing mechanism. That’s why airlines generally speaking outside of the US and currently outside of China tend to put both systems on board.”

Rogers suggests that high-bandwidth passengers may well remain wifi users, but that, as a user, he “might just want to get on and do a text or a quick sync to my email. I just attach to the network and get billed from my home operator for the connection.”

The key barrier is transparent and reasonable pricing from the mobile operators, of course, and in the West few carriers have got on board with inflight cellular connectivity. “They are beginning to,” Rogers says, noting “SingTel for example: if you’re a SingTel subscriber, the specific package is 29 Singapore dollars to use the system in the aircraft.”

“If you’re on SingTel, you get on our aircraft, get up in the sky, attach to a network, and you’ll get a text from Syntell which says, for 29 Singapore dollars, all you can eat on the aircraft, over a week period. So it’s designed for a business traveler who is going there and back. Dial star 100 hash and you’ll get into that package. The other Singapore operators have a very similar thing. You go to Malaysia, and they have a very similar thing — in those markets, they are very receptive.”

The reason for carriers from that region being particularly keen on AeroMobile, Rogers suggests, is that significant amounts of reasonable bandwidth are being deployed by the region’s carriers, including Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. Yet in the US or Europe, while air service may cost the around US$10 per megabyte for retail customers, corporate packages may well include AeroMobile as a roaming partner. Usage data suggests that there is a significant section of the corporate userbase making the most of this part of their cellular package.

As more and more carriers elect to use passenger-unfriendly and pricey per-megabyte packages rather than the simpler hour-based or flight-based options, AeroMobile may well have an opportunity to win over customers, especially in the increasingly lucrative light-user market.

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