As major connectivity vendors continue to pursue opportunities to deliver broadband to aircraft another set of operators is pursuing cheaper options to provide very limited bandwidth. For the past year the Iridium NEXT network has seen multiple providers working towards implementations of portable connectivity systems with no aircraft modification required. Lufthansa Systems was one of the players with such a program in place. That is no longer the case. The group pulled the plug on that program, citing less than satisfactory performance.
Jan-Peter Gaense, the company’s Head of Passenger Experience Products & Solutions, did not mince words in describing the decision. After working through the technical challenges of integrating into the BoardConnect platform and getting to the performance phase of the program Gaense explained that it was seen as a solution passengers would likely find frustrating, not one they’d find rewarding.
We spoke to Iridium and we looked at the capabilities and bandwidth of the window-mounted antenna and we don’t think we can get a value proposition that can make passengers happy. The first passenger sending a picture of their meal is going to clog the pipe and frustrate everyone. We don’t want to get a solution out there that’s going to piss everyone off.– Jan-Peter Gaense, Head of Passenger Experience Products & Solutions, Lufthansa Systems
Limiting the services available to passengers is an option but would likely require a dedicated app to effectively deliver that on the ultra low bandwidth connection. Gaense is not keen to pursue that path, noting that consumers in general avoid acquiring new apps. Moreover, getting passengers to install the app before a flight is generally a losing battle, furthering reducing passengers’ view of such systems.
Other lightweight options
Even with the eventual upgrades to the NEXT constellation the underpowered antenna and limited total capacity per link would hold the system back. But the group is not giving up completely on the idea of using Iridium NEXT for some services. Gaense continued, “We do think it could be cool for payments; for online payment it makes a lot of sense. And maybe for some other back-end transactions.” That continues an effort first demonstrated some 18 months ago but which has yet to find a solid backing.
Beyond the patch antenna there are other options in play. Lufthansa Systems is working with its counterparts at Lufthansa Technik to see if an opportunity exists for a permanently mounted (and STC-requiring) antenna on the system that will be sufficiently lightweight and cheap to develop and install while also offering the extra performance needed for these systems to thrive. Gaense is “not optimistic, but we haven’t given up on that one yet.” Iridium CEO Matt Desch previously described the NEXT offering as “a $40,000 system doing 700 kilobits per second.” That’s sufficient for payment processing, assuming the antenna can be acquired and integrated at the right price and actually deliver that capacity.
Faroese flag carrier Atlantic Airways announced a similar program with AirFi, using the window antenna for connectivity. That “Basic Connectivity” plan is still on the books and Atlantic Airways CEO Jóhanna Á Bergi provided an update last week, indicating that the program was still progressing. The initial announcement expected to have the planes online at the end of 2018.
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