Emirates could have 1.3 million connections a month on its aircraft by the end of this year. This is according to Patrick Brannelly, divisional vice president of customer experience and In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) at Emirates, who spoke exclusively to Via Satellite about the airlines’ IFC plans. Emirates has long been a pioneer in terms of IFC and the numbers now being connected on its flights are pretty impressive. In December 2017, 950,000 people connected to the internet during flight — a record for Emirates.
“What is extraordinary is the month-on-month growth of more than 5 percent. The take-up rating is growing dramatically. We were at 780,000 just a few months ago; now, it is 950,000. We retrofitted about 30 to 40 planes last year with connectivity at huge expense, so that adds to the overall demand. We are seeing more and more people connect,” says Brannelly. “We do listen closely to the people that have problems, and they often reveal systemic issues on the aircraft, satellite or ground infrastructure, so it’s getting better all the time. At the end of the day, it is a huge investment from Emirates to subsidize these systems, [but] it is accepted as a cost of doing business in this connected world.”
Emirates has just passed a pretty key milestone in completing the retrofit of its Boeing 777 fleet with connectivity. Apart from two or three aircraft that are close to retirement, Emirates now has a 100-percent Wi-Fi equipped fleet. Brannelly says the strategy is now that you have to be connected. He believes it has now gotten to a point where, if an aircraft is not connected, people no longer understand or accept why it isn’t. Emirates is already seeing comments like that from passengers.
“It is an extraordinary position to be in so quickly. The expectation of connectivity is there. Our strategy is to maintain our leadership position in terms of connecting passengers and I think Emirates has had that leadership position from way back when we put phones on every seat in 1996,” he says.
Almost all of Emirates’ planes have the ability to connect with your mobile phone. That ability is expected now, he says; people expect to be able to receive and send SMS. The future, though, is Wi-Fi for connectivity: for apps, for voice and messaging. SMS usage seems to be declining in favor of data-driven apps like WhatsApp. The future is about improving the bandwidth, improving the coverage, and reducing the cost, according to Brannelly.
The Need for More Bandwidth: Open for New Business
Emirates has been a flagship customer of Inmarsat for a number of years. Most of its planes operate at their bandwidth capacity, given there is now high demand. If you look at its SwiftBroadband-equipped aircraft, which is only 79 Airbus A380s now, the usage data per channel almost maxes out whenever those planes fly. “We need more bandwidth,” he says.
Brannelly admits that we are now seeing bandwidth availability and speeds increasing. There have also been improvements in the ease of use. “You have seen what is happening with our recent 777-X announcement happening two years from now. That will deliver a blisteringly fast internet using the Inmarsat Global Xpress network. Is that going to be fast enough 10 years from now? It is difficult to predict, but hopefully. But, anyway, we are committed to investing in best of breed technologies,” he says. “I don’t expect to see SwiftBroadband operating on our fleet in two years’ time. I hope it isn’t. It really isn’t up to the task, even though a lot of people still connect on it. It is fine for narrowband services such as WhatsApp, but downloading 50 megabits of work emails is a big struggle, especially if the plane is busy.”
One of the interesting dynamics in the satellite sector right now is that there will be a number of new constellations being launched in the next few years in different orbits. While Emirates is an Inmarsat customer now, things could change. Brannelly does not rule out using capacity on these new satellites.
“We will look at everything and every technology. We need global coverage because of our route network, which is quite unique; we also need good capacity globally. When you look at Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and new Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) systems, these are super exciting. From experience, changing avionics equipment on a plane is a tedious and slow process. You have to be very careful when changing technologies on a plane. It is not something that should be rushed. Airbus and Boeing are fantastic here compared to where they were 10 to 15 years ago. They have super experts that are embracing these new technologies and enabling them earlier,” he says.
Brannelly who is a well-known speaker on this area, says that what gets presented to most airlines is a very simplified flavor of product promise. He says airlines are being “talked down to in an overly simplistic manner.” He examines some of the issues that Emirates has to face: Engineers have to understand the footprint of a satellite, the number of aircraft and combined passengers in that footprint, alongside the technology. Brannelly says this is not a “black and white science.”
“We fly a pack of aircraft to Europe every morning to reach there as the airports open, and all are under the same footprint — many are A380s with 500-plus passengers on them. That’s a pack of 10,000 smartphones in the same air space! It changes continually wherever you are geographically, even the angle of the plane, etc. It is complex. Companies like to buy simple products, but there is a lot of science behind it, and you need to understand it to make decisions,” he adds. “I suppose we can say this is rocket science!”
Brannelly admits that Emirates needs to better understand what the peak demand is. He says the airline understands the bandwidth demand for the population of its lounges at Dubai Airport and, as a result, has improved its Wi-Fi there. “[For] a short flight: most people won’t get connected. However, on a 16-hour flight, we are seeing penetration levels of 150 percent. If you have 500 people on a plane, you are seeing around 700 to 800 devices connect at one time or other during the flight,” he says. “It is interesting just how many connected devices we have these days. I had to do a firmware update on my router at home and, after I rebooted, I found 41 devices connected! That includes Alexa, plugs for lamps, a watch, even cameras, etc., as well as the various laptops, iPads and Apple TVs. It is ridiculous but [IOT] is the new normal going forward.”
Streaming: Looking Beyond Connectivity
One of the big questions facing any airline is how to supplement their offerings with more than just connectivity. We have already seen Netflix do partnerships with the likes of Aeromexico, for example. For an airline like Emirates, it has planes with 620 people on them. Brannelly says that, at the moment, the peak demand from 620 people isn’t really understood in great detail today. So how would working with a company like Netflix impact this?
“If you look at Netflix, they have created a new encode speed of 250 Kbps. So, that is four customers for every 1 Mbps of bandwidth. We have up to 620 people on the plane so, to be certain of all getting a basic experience, that would need 150Mbps — which is not realistically supportable. So, would we offer a service that only 80 people could connect to concurrently? I am not sure. But people will want more streaming in the future, and perhaps other technologies will come along to make that more able. People are smart; if they want to watch something on Netflix, they know you can offload it to your device,” he says.
While providing these types of services is great in theory, it is not easily done, particularly on a plane. Brannelly cites an example to show the complexity involved: “I watched a movie at home the other night, which had a length of two and half hours, but took me four hours to watch, and I have 100 Mbps connection. My wife gave up! So was the problem at my house? Was it my router, the telco, the media server in Los Angeles, or the software logic? There are a million things. I have watched many other streamed movies without a hitch. Speed is the thing but, getting rid of the technical issues that bring speed to a halt is vital,” he says.
The Evolving Usage Trends
Another thing that has changed over the years is what devices are now being connected on an Emirates flight. The airline now only sees laptops usage at about 4 percent, tablets at 4 percent. More than 90 percent of the connections are now through mobile devices.
Emirates has changed dramatically the pricing of its Wi-Fi service. Everyone gets 20 MB free — but it is not free data for the airline, as this involves a massive investment of millions of dollars to fund this. “If you need to get in touch, you can. There are also very affordable packages if you want to buy. However, if you are in our frequent flyer program, it is free throughout the flight if you are in business class or first class. We see a massive amount of passengers sign up for our frequent flyer program and stay connected throughout the entire flight,” Brannelly comments. VS