Delta Air Lines’ vision of offering free onboard Internet to all passengers in 2023, as revealed in an exclusive, pre-holiday report by The Wall Street Journal, is the type of model that will be embraced by the rest of aviation, including major airlines, by the end of this decade. So said Panasonic Avionics VP, Connectivity Business Unit John Wade, citing the increasingly important role that new NGSO and software-defined GEO satellites will play in powering more flexible and cost-efficient inflight connectivity.
“I think that by the end of this decade, Delta’s vision of ‘Wi-Fi for everybody’ will be true for all of aviation,” predicted Wade in an interview with Runway Girl Network. He reckons that aero ISP and integrator Panasonic, with its Ku-band satellite-based eXConnect IFC solution, is in a “very strong position” to support the free Wi-Fi model, given its relationships with satellite operators that are pursuing software-defined GEO satellite launches, as well as its new distribution agreement with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operator OneWeb. These satellites will facilitate hybrid networks, including LEO/GEO, for IFC.
“[Y]ou still haven’t reached the point where you step on an aircraft, and it just works,” noted Wade in reference to the lion’s share of IFC installs in the world fleet. “That is where we’ll be able to get to with this next generation of satellites,” he said.
Indeed, only a cluster of airlines offer free, unfettered accessed to the Internet for all passengers, including notably some of Viasat’s high-capacity Ka-band IFC customers: standard-setter JetBlue, Qantas on short/medium-haul, Brazilian operator Azul and soon, Canada’s Porter Airlines on its Embraer E2s, plus, according to WSJ, Delta Air Lines sometime this year. The latter has, however, already been offering free Internet browsing to SkyMiles members on its Viasat-equipped aircraft.
Other tests are afoot. Virgin Atlantic decided to offer an ad-supported, time-based free Wi-Fi option for passengers onboard the inaugural flight of its new Airbus A330neo, which is fitted with Viasat’s Ka IFC. “On Virgin Atlantic, both watch offers (video ads before the free session) and trial offers (access to certain platforms free of charge) are available to passengers. This is an addition to paid options,” a Viasat spokesman explained to Runway Girl Network. Porter is pursuing a similar approach.
A long-time industry veteran, Panasonic’s Wade has never been particularly wed to one frequency band or another, but he believes that “the lines are blurring in terms of the capability” of Ku-band satellites versus Ka-band. “The Ka satellite operators will tell you Ka is better, but having been fortunate to spend time in a satellite company [in a prior role at Intelsat], I can tell you the lines of delineation of which one is better are far more blurry than people would have you believe.”
And over the next decade or so, with the march of this new breed of satellites including in the Ku-band frequency, that line will get even blurrier “and people won’t care so much”, Wade predicted. “We’re not a satellite operator which gives us a potential to operate in a world where we look to different satellite companies. Not every satellite company wants to go direct to aviation and candidly some don’t want to.”
Panasonic’s new partner, OneWeb, is among the B2B players eschewing a direct model for its low-latency service. To wit, company vice president – mobility services Ben Griffin recently told RGN that if Airbus selects OneWeb as a Ku-band managed service provider for its new supplier-furnished, high-bandwidth inflight connectivity program, HBCplus: “We’d much rather maintain our indirect wholesale approach, so in that sort of scenario [we] would have distribution partners serving as MSPs.” That would obviously be good news for Panasonic, as well as Intelsat, which is also a distribution partner of OneWeb in commercial aviation.
One of the topics of discussion in industry is: will there be enough Ku-band satellite capacity out there? But Wade pointed out that more Ku satellites are being launched (OneWeb, for instance, is already honing a Gen 2 plan).
“[W]e feel good about where the Ku work is going and we’re very comfortable with where we are right now,” said the Panasonic executive.
- Panasonic to offer OneWeb-powered inflight connectivity
- Air France’s Anuvu Ku inflight connectivity stuns on recent flight
- Porter to offer free Wi-Fi, but fewer ads for frequent flyers
- OneWeb focuses on B2B aero model; ESAs for Gen 1 and Gen 2 network
- Intelsat to support antenna swap for airlines keen on GEO/LEO service