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Seamless CEO on why new IFC standard is turning point for industry

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Seamless Air Alliance, the groundbreaking group founded in 2018 by Airbus, Airtel, Delta Air Lines, OneWeb and Sprint and which now boasts a ‘who’s who’ of members in the inflight connectivity industry, has published what it says is “the first-ever” standard for IFC.

Release 1.0, which establishes a modular platform architecture for inflight connectivity, was agreed by Seamless members after two years of work involving monthly meetings at Airbus, Collins Aerospace and other member facilities, plus hardware testing at Sprint and elsewhere. ICF, a design company that specializes in design sprints, aided Seamless in helping to keep everyone organized and on track.

“By using a modular structure based on open interfaces, the system enables rapid adoption of new technologies without requiring customization or the complete replacement of equipment on the aircraft or fleet,” said Seamless in a statement. The standard is positioned as enabling long-term technical flexibility for airlines, a secure and easy- to-access service for passengers, and opening the door “to seamless roaming with mobile network operators”.

Speaking to Runway Girl Network, Seamless CEO Jack Mandala said: “This is really going to be a turning point for the industry because what we’ve accomplished is not just a best practices document or a white paper, it is hundreds of pages of technical requirements, specifications and an entire system architecture. It is really something that is going to change the industry.”

The three-part technology brief drafted by Seamless starts with a business requirements document, “and this was really something authored primarily by the airlines – all of what they want in a system on their plane”, explained Mandela. “Build this and we’ll buy it is the mantra we started with there.” So, the document was created to meet airlines’ unique testable requirements. In addition to Delta, airline members of Seamless include Aeromexico, Air France-KLM, GOL, Etihad Airways, and Virgin Atlantic.

The second document outlines technical requirements, and how to meet those requirements. It breaks down IFC systems into functional components and open interfaces between those components. Mandala explained:

The airlines wanted a lot of flexibility and wanted choice in equipment service providers. The biggest thing I’ve heard from them and the biggest gripe that came out is it’s hard to know how and when to invest in different technologies and bet on one horse, so to speak, when you’re looking across a fleet of aircraft to make an investment in. So, they wanted that flexibility.

We looked at the systems today among our entire membership and we started with breaking it down into 20 or 30 functional components and the suppliers said ‘we can’t do that, it reveals too much about our magic and what makes us special’ so after a lot of debate, we broke it down to eight functional components, and the interfaces and technology requirements of those components.

So, we don’t talk about what goes on in the functional components – that’s the magic that makes the supplier special – but what goes into that box and doesn’t so the whole system is plug and play so the airline ends up with a future-proof system. So, they don’t have to worry about customizations, replacing the entire systems, it’s just about an individual functional component.

The third document is the overall network architecture, “and we built a reference model to define these open systems”, noted Mandala.

Members of Seamless which identify as suppliers, integrators or service providers include Collins, Safran, Panasonic, Inmarsat, Sitaonair and Astronics. But just because a plug and play architecture has been agreed does not mean suppliers can’t innovate. Quite the contrary. “We’re encouraging suppliers to innovate to win that component [of the eight functional components], and the upside for them and the upside for the market and why it’s good for suppliers is you’re promoting a more frequent replacement of components. If you’re Apple, you’re putting out a new iPhone every year, it creates that turnover. So, it’s a win-win, allowing the suppliers to build a better mousetrap. It’s not confining them on a race to the bottom on price. They have all the control they’ve had and now the market’s opened up,” assured Mandala.

IFC installation standards have already been moving in the direction of plug and play, with the ARINC 792 standard for nextgen IFC antennas touted as such. Mandala told RGN he believes Seamless is tracking parallel to some of the work being accomplished by the AEEC Ku/Ka-band satcom subcommittee, which published the ARINC 792 spec. “And even I know ARINC is looking at a common modem manager. “I haven’t heard anything negative from those companies [participating]…so far so good.”

A graphic with multiple squares showing how passengers will access service driven on the back-end by open-standard equipment and systems integration

Seamless Release 1.0 creates a common roaming framework for airlines, passengers, suppliers, and mobile network operators that, according to the alliance, will streamline the passenger experience and break through the take rate ceiling to deliver the highest level of passenger engagement. Image: Seamless Air Alliance

In addition to future-proofing new IFC systems, Seamless’ new standard seeks to address obsolescence of current-gen systems, noting that, through the cooperation of airlines, service providers, and technology partners, “legacy installations can be adapted to support emerging features and functionality. Incremental upgrades to these systems to support Seamless connectivity creates a staircase toward improving passenger satisfaction at a reduced cost compared to wholesale system replacement.”

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Virgin Atlantic IFEC development manager Mark Cheyney said in a statement: “Meeting increasing expectations for connectivity in the skies is fast becoming a driving factor in airline preference. Virgin Atlantic and the Seamless Air Alliance believe that standardization will allow airlines to be more empowered and more in control of their connectivity service offerings, allowing them to meet their customers’ expectations.”

Like Delta, Virgin Atlantic is a customer of Gogo’s 2Ku inflight connectivity system.

Sherif Bakir, CEO of Seamless member Vodafone Roaming Services, added: “While in flight connectivity is already available today, the experience of customers varies from one airline to another in terms of things like simplicity and data speeds. With rising consumer connectivity needs, this new standard is a promising first step towards a much improved and consistent in flight customer experience.”

Additional details of Seamless Release 1.0 are available in a newly published technology brief, titled Seamless Air Alliance Introduction to SR1 – A New Era of Inflight Connectivity. It can be accessed here: SAA – Technology Brief Seamless Release 1.0 (1)

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