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IFC Providers Balance Cost and Capabilities to Provide the ‘At Home’ Experience in the Air

By David Hodes | March 29, 2024

In-flight connectivity experts at SATELLITE 2024 Photo: Access Intelligence

In-flight connectivity (IFC) developers are working to balance cost with capabilities while offering an in-flight internet experience to match what is available at a consumer’s home. A panel of experts from Intelsat, Gogo Business Aviation, Viasat, Hughes Network Systems, Anuvu, and Gilat Satellite Networks took stock of evolving IFC expectations this month at SATELLITE 2024.

The panel generally agreed that the true at-home internet experience is now possible.

“It’s here. It’s a reliable service,” said Reza Rasoulian, vice president of Hughes. “It’s not one band versus another one versus another. When you bring all of this together in a cohesive solution, we are able to deliver an exceptional experience. I think some players have been better than others over time, but it’s time to really create a living [room] experience in the air.”

Viasat Aviation CCO Meherwan Polad described the expectation of an internet at-home experience in the air. “It means the ability to do all the things you’re used to at home, which is using your business applications, browsing the web, doing all the streaming you want from all your favorite streaming providers,” Polad said. “But digging a little bit deeper, it means being able to do those things anytime, anywhere, regardless of what time of day and regardless of where you’re flying.”

Dave Bijur, senior vice president of Commercial Aviation for Intelsat, said new solutions that are coming online take time to implement. It takes time to change out solutions that have been on airplanes for the past 15 years. He highlighted the reduction in latency, or the time it takes to get a packet of data to and from the airplane, with Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. Intelsat partners with Eutelsat OneWeb for aviation connectivity, and also signed a LEO capacity expansion deal during SATELLITE.

“There’s a significant enhancement available on the LEO network when it comes to basic applications,” Bijur said. “I’m not talking just voice and video. I’m talking basic collaboration tools that are functioning much better.”

Rasoulian mentioned technology improvements Hughes has pursued to create a “frictionless experience for every flight every single time every single minute.” Hughes landed its first direct-to-airline IFC deal with Delta Air Lines last year.

“The way we’re doing that was a lot of automation in the backend that actually extends the health of the network to be able to provide that experience,” he said.

Technology is coming along, but not as fast as some would hope. “The challenge that we have in aviation is that it just takes time with new technology and aircrafts,” said Amir Yafe, vice president of Mobility and Global Accounts for Gilat Satellite Networks. “The rollout of services is just a gradual process. It’s not as quick as at-home. It just takes more time because of the regulations, because of the safety of flights, and other concerns that need to be addressed first.”

[Read more: Flat Panel Antennas Put Volume Back on the Menu in IFC]  

There is a sense that IFC providers are a getting a better education in providing services and balancing that with customer demands, Yafe said. “We’re getting more and more educated now. I think at the end airlines need to balance how much they want to go into the technology,” he said. “There was a lot of discussions on multi orbits and multi bands. But they don’t focus on money. Most things cost a lot of money to put on an aircraft.”

One issue that is still up for debate is the business model of IFC. Should in-flight internet be a revenue generator?

“It’s an airline by airline matter,” Bijur said. “Bags fly free at Southwest Airlines. That’s a marketing ploy. That’s not because they know something we don’t. It’s a choice I think that everyone can make as to how they’re going to make the value proposition that the customer enjoys.”

Bijur said it’s up to airlines how they structure it, whether to charge for it separately or make up the cost in the ticket price.

The cost of the in-flight service for aviation represents a very small fraction of the cost to own, operate and maintain the aircraft, argued Gustavo Nader, chief strategy officer for Gogo Business Aviation.

“There is the expectation that service evolves over time as user expectations increase,” Nader said. “Everything we have built and developed around the platform economy is designed for the future, and allows the upgrade and the evolution of the connectivity solutions to that aircraft, so that the user has the ability to always have access to the most effective broadband capabilities.”

The industry needs to work towards proving it can create the reliability and scale needed for in-flight connectivity, Rasoulian said. “We need to create this reliable, fault-tolerant ecosystem. That’s trial and error. Systems consistency is the name of the game.”