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A Roadmap for Incredible IFC

During the summer travel season, I won’t lie that In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) is at least one of the criteria my family uses to decide which airline we travel. And, while I’m the first one to pull out my devices and do a speed test, speed alone is not enough to have “incredible passenger Wi-Fi.”

Last June was the Global Connected Aircraft Summit, an event I’ve had the privilege to speak at and attend since its inception. At the beginning, most conversations around IFC were “Should I?” or “Ku- versus Ka-band.” While the “Should I?” question still lingers in some of the emerging markets such as Latin America, most have progressed into the “How do I?” And that is a far more interesting question.

Sure, part of the “how” is a very technical understanding of rain fade, skew angles, link margins, coverage patterns, etc. But, “Why am I” putting an antenna on the roof of my plane that is not only very expensive, but will continue to cost money due to increased drag or weight? Why am I signing a long-term contract on a service that at its best, is less throughput than what passengers had at the gates from their cell phones? Why am I building complex monetization strategies around free texting versus limited browsing versus streaming packages? Why am I… the list goes on.

Few airlines have created a winning solution to both the very technical and business-centric problems around IFC — In short, because they frequently ask the most important question last. Instead, let NSR outline how airlines should think about deploying or expanding IFC:

1. Do your customers want (better) connectivity?

The answer is probably yes. At the most fundamental level, connectivity has become a core component of daily lives — especially those with enough income to afford air travel. Be it for business or pleasure, your passengers consume connectivity on a daily, if not hourly basis, when they are “not your passenger.” Just like having some of their favorite drinks, shouldn’t you also have some of their favorite connectivity? And sometimes, the “customers” aren’t passengers at all.

2. Are your competitors providing it?

If yes, then you probably must as well. If you both already have it, then your solution will need to be at least as good as everyone else’s.

3. Will passengers pay for it?

This is where things get interesting —paid versus “freemium” versus. sponsorship versus fully free. All of these models have their place based on the specific breakdown and analysis within questions # 1 and # 2. The easiest is a paid service — it rations the experience to those most in need and reduces the overall connectivity requirements for airlines. It also, probably, generates the most frustration when it breaks. Fully free is the most complex — requiring careful management of Service Levels Agreements (SLAs) and contract terms between airlines and aero service providers. “Freemium” is like the app store — hugely successful in terms of take rates, with profitability/revenues a mixed bag. Sponsorship is like, well… the decorations that sit next to the cake at a fancy dinner. If you have those, you’ve probably already figured out the cake and icing. At the end of the day, people feel less frustrated when free texting doesn’t work — and are pretty upset when they upgrade to the paid version and it breaks.

4. What business goal is connectivity solving?

Sometimes remaining competitive is enough. However, given the huge expenses associated with taking airplanes out of service, as well as recurring monthly service fees for connectivity, stopping there usually isn’t enough. Instead, connectivity is usually leveraged across the entire airline’s operations in order to gain operational efficiencies alongside increased passenger satisfaction. And if isn’t… then someone in tech ops will want to use the Wi-Fi to download something to improve on-time performance, eventually.

From here, you should have a clear understanding of not only the what to connect but how much to connect it.

5. Which technical/vendor solution best fits my planes, routes, and operational ethos?

Last is an analysis of the technical solutions which best-fit all of the business-centric needs for connectivity. Once you’ve built some firm ideas around what the objectives of connectivity are – then you can have substantive discussions around which technical solution will best-fit your needs. If your competitors are providing a multi-tiered connectivity solution on their domestic narrow-body fleet – then you probably should as well. If business travelers are mostly on your wide-body fleet that usually travels specific routes – then that should be a higher priority in vendor selection vs. ‘incredible domestic Wi-Fi’.

Focusing on Ku- versus Ka-band or Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) versus Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) versus Geostationary Orbit (GEO) or High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) versus Fixed Service Satellite (FSS) already assumes you have a clear understanding of questions #1-4.

The satellite sector is changing faster than ever — and that pace is accelerating quicker than ever before. Ten years ago, a single satellite would dramatically change supply versus demand. Today, supply is quickly and rapidly outweighing demand in almost all regions, orbits, and frequencies. Single satellites matter a lot less — ecosystems of capacity matter more. Be those service provider or satellite operator-established — the technology, business models, and contracts that are used to stich these solutions together should be the focus.

Bottom line, regardless if you are an airline looking to adopt or improve onboard connectivity or a satcom vendor providing the solution — all answers should start at a simple question, “What is ‘incredible connectivity’ to my key stakeholders?” VS