Welcome to the first edition of SymontySez. I am Symonty and I hope to be able to present some views and ideas about connectivity and the IFE industry (now strangely being renamed the Passenger Experience Industry) from my 12-year journey in this field. My company, SymonTek, is responsible for the software and servers that support inflight connectivity and we work anonymously with some of the biggest names in this industry.

I am completely sure loads of you will disagree with me. That’s okay. The purpose of my commentary is to make you think and ask questions. Masticate on it for a bit, and if you bite, watch out for your uvula! And if you disagree, why not drop me an email at: wtf@symonty.org I appreciate healthy intellectual discussions.

“Why Size Doesn’t Matter”
A Satcom’s Tale of Time and Distance

This issue of satellites, aircraft, and data pipes comes live from the Utopian anarchy of the Internet connected world. We rejoice in our collective consciousness, as the laws of physics seem to melt away in an interconnected world no longer ravaged by the disparity of distance.

Now wake up silly pants, you are on a plane over the Pacific… so sit down and think about the problem…

Geostationary satellite-based Internet on an aircraft is difficult, in fact a single TCP/IP packet has to travel over the 44,000+ miles from an aircraft to your favorite web server and cannot achieve more than 64 Kbits/s no matter the size of the pipe. Let me explain how technologists are able to “fix” this limitation and why it is ultimately of no value.

Satellite data services, such as Inmarsat Swift, Ku, Ka, etc., have unique benefits over ground-based connection technologies — they require far less infrastructure. Only 3 or 4 satellites and ground stations are required to cover almost the whole planet (the poles remain an issue for all Geostationary satellites). Additionally, the technology is stable and mostly off-the-shelf; you can buy either direct data services from Inmarsat, for example, or rent spectrum from satellite service providers.

Now the hard part, lets face some facts about GEO satcom without getting too heavily into TCP Slow Start, MTU window management and the congestion algorithm in general.

Geo satcom start to be scary because the marriage with TCP is not a match made in heaven. This was first recognized in 1972 (RFC346). Since TCP and some payload management systems, like streaming video, use latency and packet loss to indicate congestion and or link speed. Some serious side effects come into play when the distance is taken into account. The problem is: each connection takes so long to get back and forth TCP thinks the link is either congested, slow or lossy and re-sizes each “window” into smaller and smaller chunks until the throughput, when multiplied by latency, seems to level out at around 64Kbits per second. Interestingly enough, the net effect is an efficient multiplexing that works very well with high numbers of users and very poorly with a single user.

To increase the single request throughput on a high bandwidth and highly latent link the use of Performance Enhancing Proxies (PEP) have seen widespread usage for some time, specifically in the fixed terminal world. While PEP works by fooling TCP with local packet acknowledgments (prior to the packets actually arriving at the other end successfully) it requires that the underlying link is virtually error free*. Also remember, this only increases the achievable single connection throughput, and it will still take up to a second for each new request to be answered by the other end.

So now there is an increase in the available throughput of large requests, for example streaming video, that passengers can watch while flying the pacific? Well yes and No. With streaming technologies, such as YouTube HD, available at 1280×720 H.264 at only 2mbits/s, which on Inmarsat (if you could bond the channels together to get it) will cost the passenger around $5 per second. Even if you are the satellite service provider and you have available satellite spectrum, that one YouTube viewer, on one plane is gobbling 8% of the total capacity of a transponder or… $2 per second. This is based on a $250K per month 30Mb/s transponder.

This is “Why Size Doesn’t Matter”

The underlying technology and the distance limits any effective throughput without costly compromises and poor customer experience. And the cost per MB means that any increase in usable capacity quickly becomes too expensive for most pax to use. Finally, the only real reason a larger pipe size would be of value would be for multiple users, and with the take up rates we have seen to date, this is not an issue.

I don’t think size matters for open Internet access, but may I suggest the “little blue pill for your pipe?” Tune in next time.

E-mail Comments: wtf@symonty.org

* A geo stationary satellite signal has to pass signals over twice the circumference of the earth before it is even routed to it’s final destination, so the space segment is round 250ms for a single hop and as much as 1 second from your airborne laptop to the web-server. To put this in perceptive try ping www.google.com and see how your connection fares against 1000ms.

* As error rates increase the extra traffic caused by the overlay of PEP and TCP are geometric and degrade far quicker with PEP than without in states of increasing error rates. To decrease error rates more of the bandwidth is allocated to the error correction protocols and delays due to computations, this looses bandwidth for end-to-end usage and also slows the initial connection to each new server, so you have to balance the benefits.

The opening salvos from the WAEA (Now APEX) were as expected with virtually every speaker mentioning or displaying iPad-isms. Marketing and futurist, Sarah Davanzo, as keynote speaker opened the conference with her separating the consumer into “eggs” and “snowflakes”. At odds, the two crowds are diametrically opposed, much like extraverts and introverts. At last I found out that I am an “egg flake” because energy drinks and coffee move me from the passive mood to an active one. Sarah may not agree. And speaking of mood, the next thing is a marketed mood stage. The best take-away was the so-called “cathedral effect” that causes newbies to a building or plane to “look up”. It seems that designers are setting a mood stage on an airplane when they add LED soothing lights or projected clouds and stars of sports, where people can gamble in games and matches to make money going to sites like http://capsasusun.fun and others.

The portable media player sessions were another source of ‘wonder and excitement’. We all wondered why a few declined to be there and were excited by the statements of the ones who were. The “iPad” word was bandied about by the Stellar representative but we must tell you that we did not really understand, or for that matter, believe what he said. Stellar is employed by Jetstar Airlines to get the iPad and conent on their aircraft. Phantom Media/Blue Box started this initiative six months or so ago. But there was a brouhaha and they got in a bit of hot water over their claim of “studio early window” approval. As far as we can tell, here is the view from those who know: 1. Apple doesn’t give a hoot about IFE…they sell millions and will continue to do so. IFE, today, is a niche market. 2. The only way to really insert early window, encryption and decryption software into an iPad with limited Apple dev kits, is to “legally” jailbreak it. Of course, one can “non legally” do the same, probably, but will studio content hackers bless it enough for early window content? One source says 5 out of 6 studios have not approved and they were even sure of the supposed one that did. In reality the real question is the early window release going to remain. Certainly no, one guru told us. Further, what’s the point of all this early stuff when studios are down to a few weeks on their early release exclusivity and airlines use up half of that time during the content encrypt and upload process. Keep an eye on this one iPad watchers and don’t forget that within a few months there will be a whole mess of Windows and Android handhelds out there. Installed IFE is on a crash course with the handheld market and people do money this way, while others do other things like doing bets on the web, using sites like w88 online for this purpose.

Dave Sampson, Mezzo gave us a quick course on the Mezzo rewire. Check out their website. It seems that they have become platform agnostic, while still supporting their eDigital units. Sounds like the right move to us. And by the way, here is a quick pic of the little Android baby he was toting in his pocket. Looks like a Dell PMP to us, and it really has a GREAT screen. Boy, things rate getting interesting and more interesting by the minute.

The Long Beach Conference & Exhibition Center is the location of the 31st annual WAEA for the inflight entertainment crowd. If you are coming, here is a good place to start: the free Long Beach iPhone App: Downtown Long Beach. A waiter at the Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant sent us to it as a good source for the city and more information on the free red bus that covers a lot of the Conference vicinity and downtown dining hotspots. We got recommendations about the following pubs and eateries near the Center as follows:
PF Chang
The Auld Dubliner
California Pizza
Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery
Pictures have been posted on Flickr – WAEA & AIX Day 0.

Welcoming Reception
Probably ranking as one of the best, this year’s get-to-know-get-together on Sunday night really clicked. The food was great, the bar was fab and the crowd was jovial. What more can you say – while the regulars were there saying, “You have gotten fat!” and the newbies were saying, “How thin you look,” and we were there writing it down. We were glad to see the likes of Michael Childers, John White, Neil Morgan, Rich Salter, Jim Snyder, Geoff Underwood, Linda Palmer, Wendy Campnella….the usual suspects. Check out the photos.

Sneak Peek: You are looking at a complete wide-body shipset of HD IFE from Lumexis…this is a first. After all, they were the first IFE vendor we know who brought a full single-aisle shipset of IFE to the WAEA conference a few years back. Amazingly, the servers (solid state) that powers the whole rig are about 4 MCU…and one is a mirror – they could operate the whole plane, full content from one. The transparent seat group in front of the IFE demonstrates the seat wiring (or lack thereof). Two power wires and a F.O. cable…the whole harness is smaller than the wire to a floor lamp. State of the art, Lumexis.

Disembarking iceland air at Akureyri Airport

OK, OK, let the “I-told-you-so’s” begin. The volcano got us. We left Seattle with assurances if we left 2 hours early, the airport would still be open – NOT! In fact, it seemed a bit suspicious that over half way thru the flight (beyond the turn back point) we got the bad news. Well, I say news, I mean the speakers on that B757 were so crappy that between them and the lilting Icelandic patois, we had no idea where were going to land. The answer was a small town airport at the end of a fjord.

Actually, inconvenience not included, landing at a remote airport has scenic advantages. You see, the town of Akureyri is on the north central part of Iceland and cleverly placed at the end of two mountain ranges. The landing approach was somewhat clouded in fog and mist and we broke out at what appeared to be around 500 feet, so we must have been on some kind of precision approach. Looking out the windows when we broke thru was interesting, to say the least. It was quite similar to the old Hong Kong city airport Kai-Tak. In this case, the mountains were a few thousand feet higher than the plane and the dogleg at the outer marker brought back memories.

IFExpress arrives in Iceland

While on the subject of Icelandic Air, the less said the better. We are still trying to figure why they left Seattle?

A word must be made about the airline food. Here it is: expensive & awful…that’s two words but they both fit the scenario. For example: For a measly $7 bucks, one could obtain a 3″ healthy wrap comprised of a tortilla, some limp lettuce, a bit of feta cheese, and carrot slivers. Bring your own food…the water is still free.

Upon landing in Akureyri at 4:20 a.m., we were greeted with 37-degree weather; the rain and snow were a nice touch, too. Let us note, the Icelanders are fairly nice people but I expect the leaving to be hell. We shot thru Immigration via two rather disinterested public servants to a customs inspector who wished us a pleasant 5 hour bus ride! On to Reykjavik.

Iceland is an island of inconsistencies. The scenery fluctuates between the boredom of Eastern Washington sagebrush country…without the sagebrush and spectacular, snow-capped vistas. One minute the 3000 foot high, snow covered mesa’s come popping out of the ground fog and low hanging clouds, and the next…nothing. Flat, rocky land is next with seemingly little in the way of people or animals. The trip rolls around no less that 5 fjord/saltwater estuaries and the road crossed virtually one hundred ocean bound, clear water streams. There must be one heck of an anadromous fish population, however, we saw no one fishing…in fact, and we saw no one at all. I seems that in May, Icelanders go on vacation, probably to Spain or somewhere warm

A white-knuckle approach

Driving map of Iceland

Interestingly, with excellent access to salt and fresh water, we expected a marina and/or a boat or two. None were to be found except for one commercial boat in one small northern town.

No people, no boats, few tractors and a bunch of boxy houses set in an idyllic setting adds up to dichotomy. Perhaps May is not the yardstick. January, now that is the true measurement of the place and thankfully, we missed it. We did not miss two snowy passes but the roads were clear and thanks to my IPOD, trucking (Ok, bussing) was generally enjoyable. We should note that we have no idea how much the half way, road stop cost us for snacks. We could find out, but 1300 kazoozies seemed like a lot for 2 cokes, 2 waters and a coffee.

There is apparently plenty to do in Iceland and it is quite reminiscent of New Zealand. Although, the latest economic situation has made pretty much everyone eyeing your wallet, we had no trouble there, they just wanted your money and did not understand service was to be traded for it. Hell, I would have accepted a smile but they seem to be in small supply there.

The great 6-hour overland magical mystery tour

As Iceland is the land of volcano’s they were strangely absent from our drive while the air seems to leave a bit of grit in your nose and eyes but clouds are not evident. For almost a month now, I have been trying to pronounce the name of that troublemaker and it was a very nice Finnish lady who explained it in a straightforward manner. Rather than try to put the process together, we found that three words and a lilting emphasis on the “L’s” make a plausible pronunciation: AYA-FIOLA-YOKUL. Try it and amaze your friends. We even fooled a couple of natives.

It is getting hard to read so I’ll sign off for now…TJW.

PS. Upon leaving Iceland, we encountered the most incredible MESS in an airport I have ever seen in all my years of flying. The small Keflavik airport coupled with an inept Icelandic Airlines staff resulted in the biggest cluster-scrum ever! Imagine – thousands of people in a tiny airport with one feeder line for passengers, cops that avoided the melee, an airline staff that was surly, pushing shoving fights, HORRID security, expensive food and drinks, late flights to accommodate all who were in line….and you have a small picture of the problems there. Missed one day travel, landed in CPH and it was pouring rain at 4:00 PM. Gosh, we love to travel!