x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Middle East airlines plugging in for internet connectivity

Accessing the web is now such a part of many people’s lives that being disconnected for hours while airborne is a serious concern. Carriers are plugging in to demand and increasingly offering internet services on their aircraft.

Emirates Airline uses the British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat for connectivity, which uses OnAir as its internet service provider on-board. Jumana El Heloueh / Reuters
Emirates Airline uses the British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat for connectivity, which uses OnAir as its internet service provider on-board. Jumana El Heloueh / Reuters

As the internet is becoming an ever more crucial part of everyday life, or as one senior Arabian Gulf carrier executive puts it, a human right, airline passengers want to stay connected even while flying.

Despite its slow take-up, internet availability on aircraft is becoming increasingly popular in the Middle East, as carriers are keen to offer the service to remain competitive.

“We are expecting the region to have one of the largest roll-outs of connectivity of any major region over the next few years,” says Heath Lockett, the senior analyst of aerospace at IHS, a US-based research company.

“This is driven in part by a number of airlines such as Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, which are offering vast levels of luxury to their passengers, with connectivity being a key part of the current plans with existing aircraft and future plans for new additions to their fleets.”

By the end of last year, IHS said there were 554 aircraft in the Middle East offering some form of connectivity — this can either be mobile-only, Wi-Fi-only, or both mobile and Wi-Fi.

IHS said 329 aircraft offered mobile-only, 26 offered Wi-Fi-only and 199 offered both mobile and Wi-Fi.

Currently, the take-up, or the percentage of passengers on a single flight who use the connectivity service for Wi-Fi, is still low. Gogo, the biggest provider of Wi-Fi connectivity, has stated take-up rates of 5 to 6 per cent are the approximate global average for 2013. In 2011, for example, take-up rates would have been more like 3 to 4 per cent, it said.

However, those rates are expected to rise over time, as passenger demand grows for on-board connectivity and also as prices come down.

In terms of overall passenger use, data access is the most common — things such as internet browsing, social networking and emails. SMS messaging is the second-most common service used, and actual calls came last, says Mr Lockett.

“What we’ve seen is that the amount of people that connect in a flight over 12 hours in length is double those that are below 12 hours in length. The reason is you can go out of touch if it’s only six hours” but longer than 12 hours can be problematic, says Patrick Brannelly, the vice-president, corporate communications marketing and brand product, publishing, digital and events at Emirates Airline.

Here, The National looks at some aspects of on-board connectivity.

Safety and business model

Wi-Fi communications connect to satellites and operate at a frequency that is globally accepted to be safe, so they are not seen to pose a flight-deck hazard, says Mr Lockett.

Mr Brannelly says devices on an aircraft connect to an on-board central signal box which then connects to satellites.

“This is because we fly everywhere all over the world and over water,” he says. “In the US, domestic flights tend to connect down to [towers on] the ground from the plane,” he adds. Emirates uses the British Satellite Telecommunications Company Inmarsat for connectivity, which uses OnAir as its internet service provider on-board.

“OnAir sells to many airlines, they buy wholesale and sell it back to the airlines. We get some revenue, but the revenue never covers the cost, because the cost of putting these systems into the aircraft is so huge,” says Mr Brannelly.

“Connectivity equipment costs vary on an aircraft, and while some of these systems are just an addition to existing comms infrastructure, some are complete installs … but you do not get much for $250,000,” he says. “I would not be surprised if the complete [passenger] communications system on an aircraft exceeds $1 million — especially if you include the in-seat telephone handsets et cetera as well as the obvious stuff such as Wi-Fi antennae. The reason is that unlike equipment you may use in your home, of which the manufacturers makes tens of thousands of units and therefore can amortise the cost, thus making the item cheap, aircraft equipment is made often just for a few tens of aircraft. Aircraft certification requirements are also extremely tough — rightly so. Once equipment is installed, it has to be maintained, which is also a high cost.

“Emirates sees this as totally justified costs in terms of ensuring we are able to provide our passengers with the ability to communicate — and the demand and need to communicate will only grow in the future,” he says, adding that these systems must include measures to protect the aircraft against any interference that might affect the radio communications of the aircraft.

Prices

Despite the heavy investment, Mr Lockett does not think any airlines anywhere in the world are making money from offering a connectivity service. He says an airline may be able to earn some revenue from Wi-Fi as passengers have to pay some carriers directly to use the service. But often it is available free of charge — either as part of a special offer, or maybe for those in business or first class where it is one of the perks premium passengers expect.

“We don’t make money. It’s a service. It’s becoming more and more of a human right,” he says. “There’s no reason that you should stop your life because you are on an airplane. You shouldn’t stop communicating.”

Wi-Fi services at Emirates currently costs US$15 per 100 megabytes. “There are a couple of options to buy connectivity on-board, one being the 100MB package. This allows the user to send or receive up to 100MB of data during the course of the flight. An email without attachments can be as small as a few kilobytes, and a tweet even less. If a passenger wants to download a large PDF, then it may be 30MB or more, while a good quality photograph may be a couple of MB. From our experience few people need the full 100MB while on-board.”

He adds that “while everyone expects it to be free in the future, this will only be after some technological advancements, which are outside of Emirates’ control. Current methods of getting data to and from an aircraft are very expensive. Every airline doing connectivity today is a pioneer. Ten to 15 years from now, it will be free.”

Speed of service

The connectivity speed of Wi-Fi on planes is still a technological hurdle and it is not yet fast enough to stream videos.

“The reason you can’t stream [videos] is physics at the moment,” says Mr Brannelly.

“The speed is a factor on how many people are connected and where in the world you are.

“The satellites are 22,000 miles away out in space. This is an awful long way to send a signal and there’s only some radio bandwidth [available] to give some picture downloads.”

However, as most of the Gulf carriers offer hundreds of movies as well as TV and music videos on their in-flight entertainment systems, online streaming might not be such a big issue for passengers considering what airline to use.

selgazzar@thenational.ae

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