Aircraft Interiors 2012 Review: Installment #2

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Lufthansa Systems: Like every good new idea in IFE, wireless systems are now being offered by a number of suppliers. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to consider the first in that marketplace to be the clear leader–and, yes, we’re talking about Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect.

We talked to the man whose idea it was in Hamburg at AIX, Dr. Joerg Liebe, CIO of Lufthansa Systems and the visionary behind this hot new platform. Lufthansa Systems was the first to offer a complete wireless system– not just a concept. With Condor they were the first supplier to sell wireless to an airline. And with their Virgin America deal were the first to take a big customer away from the reigning IFE platform providers.

The soft-spoken, Southern California-educated Dr Liebe gave us a thorough, candid and thoughtful description of this product and where it’s going. Modestly suggesting that the platform is designed to be sold to airlines which don’t currently have IFE, rather than aimed at taking business away from the IFE duopoly, Dr Liebe says that BoardConnect has three models: 1. A head-end server streaming to airline-provided SDUs. 2. A head-end streaming to airline-provided tablets. 3. A head-end streaming to passenger-owned devices or a combination of these. It should also be noted that some studios have approved early window content streamed from the server to the installed BoardConnect IFE seat units. The approval is only applicable to the BoardConnect system and tablets, but not PEDS; however, to the best of our understanding this is a first!

With sales to both Virgin America and Virgin Australia, and the AIX buzz about a very successful trial with Qantas, Dr Liebe may have to step out from behind his modest facade and brag a little! But somehow that doesn’t seem his style! The BoardConnect concept not only appealed to us but the jury at the Crystal Cabin Awards had the same inclination!

Panasonic: When Panasonic takes on a big project they usually do it right and the process ends up being a long, cautious march to the solution. For just under 10 years now, we have been covering pieces and parts of a global communication offering from the Lake Forrest, CA company. In fact, this is the first year we have gotten solid numbers on customer installations and the non-announcement announcement indicates they have been doing their homework. This story is multi-faceted so we will break it down for you in bullet points because this year’s AIX is where it has all come together. In the press announcement, Panasonic’s David Bruner noted that there was a real tipping point in demand in 2011 for inflight connectivity. Bruner went on to state that every single airline now believes they have to have GSM capability and broadband offerings on their fleet. “Not just big aircraft,” he noted, “but small ones too. And these services need to work exactly the same way in the air as on the ground so there is no passenger learning curve.” Basically, this translates to WiFi, cell connections, and streaming video. All hot products on big and small aircraft – even those with premium entertainment systems.
• Panasonic has been pressing to close out their coverage of the Ku network globally. There is a lot of coverage already in the northern hemisphere and by tying in to IS14 from Intelsat they will snag seamless coverage from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South America. This is a key piece to the Panasonic network and it is now in place. Additional capacity has been added to Australia, New Zealand and the Trans Tasman. The General Electric 23 satellite will serve the South East Asia, Australia, and South East Pacific connections.
• Panasonic has also reached commercial agreement with Airbus for line fit on the A380. This means they can eliminate the retrofit costs and they also noted that they will be adding offerability on the A350 as well. Panasonic has been undertaking this objective for the past 4 years. With respect to Boeing and the 787, Panasonic reports they are making progress on the 787 linefit as the result of their work on the 777.
• A major step in any satellite network is the ground connectivity portion. In an investment move, Panasonic elected to take a majority share of an existing satellite service provider, AeroMobile. AeroMobile operates a ground network that manages the relationship between the airline connectivity and the cell phone roaming partner. This feature is what Telenor brings to the party and Panasonic does not have, nor do they want, this additional complexity. As a result, Telenor, a minority shareholder is not leaving and is “absolutely involved in the venture”. AeroMobile switches from satellite to a global telco system on the ground where traffic routing begins. Furthermore, Panasonic provides pure IP traffic to AeroMobile, who translates it out to the network. Today, AeroMobile has a significant number of aircraft flying with Swift Broadband and in effect, AeroMobile is platform agnostic. This represents a great marriage for Panasonic.
• Did we mention that Panasonic announced they have 1300+ aircraft already signed up for their Global Communication Suite? Consequently, Panasonic has been searching for the best broadband network to provide economical service to airlines and passengers. Panasonic is focusing on designing a new Ku band network by providing maximum capability in areas where airplanes fly and none where they do not via spot beam selection. There goal: Maximum bandwidth at the lowest cost. To achieve this they are working with a new un-named partner who is “a player with global capability and of the highest quality in the industry”. This bodes well for eXTV.
• The net result of all this activity will be a service offering beginning in 2015 with North America and the North Atlantic covered first. Europe to Asia will follow and finally all of Asia.
• Along the way, Panasonic developed a Ka Band antenna as a candidate for high through put capacity. The irony was they found that capability in Ku. Noting that the airborne antenna is the most difficult design part of the process, by sticking with Ku very little change occurs to the aircraft – this is a major plus for the airline. (Note: One could assume that Panasonic has found clever ways to gang and steer spot beams in satellites with that capability. Obviously, receiver design plays a significant part in this as well.)
• The majority of the 20+ existing eXPhone customers will continue to work with the Ku equipped aircraft. These include operators like Virgin Atlantic, Malaysia Airlines, and Emirates. Gulf Air and Lufthansa will be onboard soon. We also understand Cathay Pacific, SAS, Turkish Airlines, and Etihad have signed up.

Editor’s Note: Mea Culpa! In case you lost your copy of Wheelock’s Latin, it means we are sorry to the nice folks at D.e.u.t.s.c.h. because we misspelled their name in the last issue of IFExpress. We say it again, “Mea Culpa!”

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