Rescuing Inflight Broadband


According to Shephard Group’s Inflight-Online, Panasonic Avionics wants to offer the same inflight broadband service being shut down by Connexion by Boeing:

JUST when the Inmarsat community was relishing the prospect of an unobstructed run at the passenger broadband market, Panasonic has announced a plan to take up where Connexion by Boeing left off. The IFE giant has no intention of rushing in, though, and will not launch unless it has commitments covering a critical mass of aircraft. 

“We have a complete system designed, developed and ready to go,” strategic marketing director David Bruner told Inflight Online at the WAEA show in Miami Beach last week. “But we’re determined to avoid one of the things that brought Connexion down – lack of an initial fleet big enough to assure acceptable pricing for the airlines.”

Panasonic has set about securing agreements covering a minimum of 500 aircraft in the next 60 days. That schedule is being driven by the need to be ready to serve ex-Connexion airlines within a tolerable time after the discontinuation of that service by the end of the year. “We can’t drag our launch decision on until, say, February,” Bruner said. “There will inevitably be a dark period between the end of Connexion and the start of our service, and we want to keep that as short as possible. We already have 150 aircraft committed and feel confident we’ll make the 500. But if we’re falling badly short in 60 days’ time we will not go.”

Early takers would enjoy significant advantages over airlines that were slower of the mark, Bruner said. “In return for a minimum five-year commitment we’ll reward our launch customers with very preferential service pricing, and they will also get priority access to bandwidth.”

Panasonic’s standard wholesale price to the airlines would represent a comparatively small premium on terrestrial broadband access tariffs, Bruner said. “So far we are seeing little indication that the airlines are planning to mark this up for passengers. It’s a service they want to offer – they don’t currently see it as a revenue-generator.”

The new offering is designed to be as attractive as possible to airlines that are already equipped for Connexion. “Our solution for them is to replace only the modem on the aircraft and leave all the rest of the hardware, including the antenna, in place,” said Bruner. “That will spare them the expense of reversing the Connexion installations and then putting in our definitive equipment suite.”

That includes a compact Ku-band antenna from Californian-based L-3 Datron Advanced Technologies. Another L-3 Communications operation, the Linkabit division, is supplying the modem. Both are already fully developed for US military applications and have been modified for civil use by removing the encryption provision. Working with an existing Ku-band satellite system, the hardware is capable of delivering 12Mbit/sec to the aircraft and 3Mbit/sec in the opposite direction, according to Bruner.

Panasonic has selected a single Ku-band satellite operator to provide transponder capacity and geographical coverage at least equivalent to Connexion’s. “With an initial fleet of 500 aircraft we would anyway pay significantly less for transponders than Connexion,” Bruner pointed out. “But our technical solution will also be more efficient than theirs, allowing us to put more traffic through each transponder and thus reduce our total requirement for satellite capacity.”

Panasonic saw itself as a system designer and integrator and had no intention of incurring the costs associated with being a service provider, Bruner said. The as yet unidentified satellite operator would be responsible for system management, operation and capacity planning, and Panasonic is in talks with a global wireless roaming company for the provision of services such as customer care, billing and retail promotion. 

“We’re intent on learning from what happened to Connexion,” said Bruner. “9/11 lost them their start-up fleet, and after that they were always struggling to catch up. Our onboard equipment is lighter and cheaper, and our approach to buying transponder capacity is altogether more economical. We think these advantages will persuade the airlines and that in a couple of months’ time we’ll be ready to go ahead.”

Should the magic 500 not be achieved, however, Panasonic will continue to look for another way into connectivity. “If Ku-band proves not to make sense after all, then we’ll go down another path,” Bruner concluded.

At least one other passenger communications provider will be watching developments carefully. AeroMobile is currently to committed to L-band operator Inmarsat as the bearer system for its soon to be introduced onboard cellphone offering. But it is also looking to offer email and Internet/VPN access in the longer term, and would be open to integration with the Panasonic Ku-band system in the same way its new GSM/GPRS cellular offering is being integrated with the company’s onboard IFE infrastructure.

“We’re completely agnostic when it comes to air-to-ground data pipes,” commented AeroMobile strategic relationships and marketing director David Coiley. “In the end we could find ourselves working with Inmarsat, Panasonic and even the AirCell terrestrial broadband system in North America.”


Although some still have doubts, Australian airline Qantas is moving forward with their test.