As the inflight connectivity world continues to mature one market remains ever so slightly out of reach for suppliers: China. And now a new effort, formed from the combination of two industry veterans, hopes to deliver on that potential. Eclipse Global Connectivity and Display Interactive are teaming up to launch a new venture based in Shanghai, with plans “to become an integral part of the Chinese IFEC ecosystem.”
Eclipse brings its history of hardware and technical implementation skills to the partnership, along with a significant capital investment in Display Interactive (DI). DI will contribute its software and services to the as yet unnamed new venture.
The two companies have a longstanding relationship but the new deal transforms it to more closely develop the overall solution. Eclipse Global Connectivity CEO Marc Pinault expects to deliver immediate benefits to the existing customer base, along with strong position in emerging markets. “We are combining the quality and flexibility of DI’s proven wireless solution for airlines with the technical, design and security expertise of our own connectivity systems, plus our long-time engineering and certification know-how. As a result, we can offer a comprehensive IFE solution to our customers.”
Much of the new effort builds on the recent transition of DI’s software stack. The company shifted from a basic IFE platform to offering a fully featured wireless entertainment system for airlines. Content management is only a small part of the package. The company also now handles advertising, payments, ancillary marketing, moving maps (adult and kid versions!) and more as a single-stop shop for its airline customers. The software platform is highly customizable, allowing airlines to build a business case around the services offered. A basic portal and moving map can be delivered relatively quickly and easily while more in depth offerings can be developed to match the look and feel of a legacy IFE platform on a new sub-fleet where embedded IFE is not desired. DI’s Jacques Salvat explains the offering as “bringing flexibility of operations to the airlines. We don’t believe in a solution that is a legacy solution embedded in the seats.”
Historically the DI platform was sufficiently flexible to run across multiple hardware platforms. With the new deal the companies will cooperate to more tightly develop the software systems to run on the Eclipse hardware stack. And they intend to push hard into China with that solution.
The Challenges of Connectivity in China
DI’s Chief Operating Officer Thierry Carmes recognizes many of the challenges of operating in China and notes that many prior connectivity programs “have not yet delivered expected results.” He expects to change that with a local team, built from the ground up in country. The new partnership intends to “customize our solution to fully meet airline- and business-partner-specific requirements, as well as supporting their programs and operations locally on a day-to-day basis. We are keen to demonstrate that our IFEC model will work in China—with the same benefits and performance as elsewhere. This is an invigorating challenge, and a deep motivation for our local teams.”
This pairing is hardly the first to try to deliver in China and most have walked away, licking their wounds. Gogo and Global Eagle both tried to establish joint ventures in the country with ShareCo but backed off those plans for financial and political reasons. Gogo returned last Fall with a APT Mobile Satcom deal, hoping to deliver 2Ku technology on local satellites. Viasat established a similar partnership with China Satcom that is supposed to lead to more integration opportunities eventually, but it has been quiet in its first year. Panasonic Avionics is, by far, the leading player for inflight connectivity services in China but even there the success is limited almost entirely to the long-haul fleet, not the domestic market. The latter is where the DI/Eclipse venture hopes to play. FTS announced a deal 18 months ago with two small airlines and the first aircraft were reportedly installed in January. How that plays out moving forward given the new reality of China’s domestic market remains to be seen.
Beyond the technical requirements, China also presents significant regulatory restrictions on its inflight connectivity services. Aircraft must still be licensed individually and those licenses are typically issued for a temporary, 1-year term. In short, the failures to deliver on broad connectivity success are less about the suppliers not being able to deliver a product and more about the required product being such a unique and twisted version of what is delivered elsewhere. Plus, there’s the part where the Chinese airlines do not feel compelled to offer it as an operating loss just to attract passengers because the competition also does not have wifi.
And the plans to build massively profitable shopping portals for passengers to use inflight are now two years gone with no sign of any success.
China very much is a relationship market. Local connections are critical to building a strong presence. DI/Eclipse chose to develop the venture with local staff in Shanghai to address that challenge. But it is also a long, slow sales process even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times. The companies must be prepared to commit to a long development cycle for this new offering.
The companies also acknowledges the somewhat challenged timing of the announcement within the industry. Still, they “believe there is a need today to prepare the post-Covid 19 ramp-up of service.” With that in mind the new operation is continuing its buildout, albeit slightly delayed, and expects to “be ready, in such time, to support our customers in their recovery strategies and new developments.”