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Iridium Certus IFC proves too lite for airline PaxEx beyond payments

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In 2017, wireless inflight entertainment provider Lufthansa Systems expressed an interest in offering ‘connectivity lite’ to airlines via Iridium NEXT satellites. Lufthansa Systems’ stated goal at the time was to add connectivity to its BoardConnect Portable entertainment solution to provide both inflight messaging to passengers and support real-time credit card payments when the Iridium Certus service becomes available.

“We have a little box over there, which is an Iridium NEXT modem that we want to pair with Portable. It’s also battery powered, so no certification required. All of a sudden, at really low cost, you can at least offer wifi streaming and messaging services,” Lufthansa Systems head of passenger experience solutions Jan-Peter Gänse enthused at the time.

But Lufthansa Systems has since tempered its expectations, citing Certus bandwidth limitations.

Getting real

Gänse first shared the news with your author in April of this year at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg. While Certus may support inflight payments, he said, it appears less suited to support a messaging tier to commercial airline passengers. During the APEX EXPO this fall, I posed the question again to Gänse, on the chance that fresh studies had gleaned different results.

Gänse confided that Lufthansa Systems’ work to hook up an Iridium NEXT modem to its “box-in-bin” BoardConnect Portable solution “has not evolved”.

I think it has potential for payment solutions. Only, we now have a partner that is providing us a very good offline payment solution so maybe the use case might be going away. We keep looking at it. It’s just we are not really happy about the bandwidth we get really.

Going to a passenger and giving him something that’s just going to upset him… I mean obviously if you told him ‘you are now connected,’ it gives him an expectation and we can’t even fulfill the basic expectation of messaging anymore in a real way it … it doesn’t make it viable for me as a product anymore.

Bluebox Aviation Systems in 2018 also expressed an interest in connecting its own Wow portable wifi box with Certus. But the company’s focus has been largely on e-commerce, with business development director David Brown saying last year that the connected solution might pay for itself with credit card transactions alone.

Asked again to weigh in on the matter at this year’s APEX EXPO, Brown told RGN that Bluebox has a couple of people working on the connected Wow project, and remains fully interested in supporting real-time CC transactions. “We are waiting on them [Iridium] getting their bits ready; we are ready to go as soon as they can do it and they know that,” he said.

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But like Lufthansa Systems, Bluebox has meanwhile been innovating on the offline payments front. It is now PCI compliant and able to support credit card payments; data is captured securely and offloaded at the gate. The company expects to announce a launch airline soon.

Interestingly, Iridium is not at all surprised by this turn of events. “We will be in cabins for business jets and other smaller types of cabins, other things like that,” Iridium director & general manager – aviation Michael Hooper told RGN.

But larger cabins are “not a square fit for Iridium” based on what the operators are generally indicating they want to do – that is to offer a proper wifi experience to passengers.

For that, he said, “you’re clearly going to be thinking Ku, Ka-type wifi.”

A payments plan

On the payments front, however, Iridium does see opportunity in the aero market because its portable satellite hotspot, called Iridium Go, is already quietly being used on hundreds of aircraft to support crew applications via the classic Iridium service.

Indeed, the undisclosed airline which took this creative approach to connectivity has served as an inspiration for the IFE crowd, according to Hooper. “Lufthansa and others have asked for an antenna that can stick on the glass [from inside the cabin], so it would be truly a portable solution and would not require an external mounted antenna,” he explained.

The Iridium Certus 100 service – with speeds of 88 Kbps – is expected to ably support CC validation via Go devices, especially given that Iridium is now implementing new waveforms and capabilities to leverage Certus speeds.

Developing a nextgen Go-type of solution for airline crew apps and CC approvals is “something we will eventually get to with our technology. We’re on the first generation of transceivers [for Certus], and developing second gen and even have third gen kicking off. As we make our transceivers smaller, it will lend itself to portable solutions for a crew-type solution for those activities and others, but we don’t see it as a platform as where Ku or Ka will go,” reiterated Hooper.

Aggressive Certus VAM weighs in

Iridium’s approved value added manufacturers (VAMs) are eyeing delivery of Certus-powered aviation terminals from 2020 and beyond, with Thales’ FlytLINK expected to be first out of the gate.

As first reported by RGN, Thales is working to support cockpit comms on the Boeing 777X program with FlytLINK. Though, intriguingly, the hardware is being branded by Honeywell for its Aspire product line for the 777X cockpit, according to Thales. And, given the timing of the 777X schedule, legacy Iridium will first be used, with an opportunity for Certus to be incorporated down the road, noted Iridium’s Hooper.

FlytLINK is going to serve all classes of markets – military, commercial, helicopter, business jet all the way up to air transport. And Thales has had conversations with various parties about the possibility of forging partnerships with wireless IFE providers, Thales Inflyt Entertainment & Connectivity vice president connectivity solutions Craig Olson told RGN.

“Absolutely we have a lot of conversations,” he said. And the conversations Thales has had with Iridium “are around that very thing on how do we expand some potential go-to-market using or leveraging the relationship that we have with them as both a VAR and a VAM…” Its Certus VAR status was announced in September.

But Olson admitted that cabin-only applications for Certus would be “largely for business jets and for certainly not a high-bandwidth capability but providing you an opportunity to use low bandwidth communications in the cabin”.

Any commercial need for kiteline connectivity?

Outside of the likes of ULCCs like AirAsia, where do airlines stand on ‘lite connectivity’? Much to your author’s surprise, a carrier that has never offered connectivity to passengers reached out this fall, expressing an interest in using its extra Inmarsat SwiftBroadband capacity to support inflight messaging. The airline executive told RGN that “a few hundred Kbps can support a whole plane full of texters – no pictures”. He said SwiftBroadband would be “more than sufficient for text”.

So I put the question to Lufthansa Systems’ Gänse – does SwiftBroadband make more sense than Certus for airlines to offer a thin kiteline of connectivity, supporting a text messaging tier?

Gänse said having the SwiftBroadband antenna fixed and installed “gives you a higher reliability than window antenna”. On the other hand, he said, if an airline has a legacy SwiftBroadband contract, it “probably wouldn’t be worth it. I mean the old S-band [SwiftBroadband] contracts were really, they almost charged you by the byte. Cost prohibitive.” But he admitted he hadn’t looked at the SwiftBroadband pricing space in a very long time.

More broadly, Gänse believes the IFC industry is on the verge of disruption.

You have the newcomers like OneWeb, you have the SmartSkys and you have others looking at options where you’re no longer bound to a 5-7 year contract, but basically put your antenna, your modem in there and then source bandwidth like you source a mobile contract.

Those are not public yet but a lot of them, I know a lot of companies that look into that kind of space and I am sure airlines know that as well. So I could imagine that, especially right now, why commit now to a 7-year contract when so much cool stuff could be happening in only a few years?

Meanwhile, Lufthansa Systems is developing a new portable streaming IFE solution for widebody aircraft, saying that for “a fraction of the cost” you can reach the entire widebody cabin with one device. This could be especially appealing to operators of aged widebodies. A passenger’s own device will give them “a much better experience than the old 20-year-old screen on there”, which “breaks half the time”, said Gänse.

Given Lufthansa Systems’ apparent retreat from offering messaging with BoardConnect Portable, the new box is likely to be offered as a disconnected entertainment system that offloads at the gate.

But it is perhaps at least conceivable – given continued studies and nextgen transceiver developments – that this and indeed other portable wifi units could someday support payments via Iridium Go.

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