It is not that long ago, even last week, that inflight wifi was viewed as a perk. But it’s growing importance to customers has led to the forging of new relationships to build an infrastructure that goes beyond letting customers check their email to creating a viable flying network in the air that may one day even benefit the rest of the world on the ground.
Airbus, Delta, OneWeb, Sprint, and Bharti Airtel (“Airtel”) have announced the formation of the Seamless Air Alliance which represents the forging of a new type of connectivity collaboration. Along with Delta’s wifi service provider, Gogo, this group will use existing and future ground and space infrastructure to extend the reach and quality of connectivity services around the world.
The rise of LEO
The participation of OneWeb in the group is a vote of confidence in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, as part of this future infrastructure. LEO satellites have the advantage of being closer to the ground, which reduces latency of communications compared to the Geosynchronous (GEO) satellites used today. But, while messages can be exchanged more quickly, the position of LEO constellations relative to the earth means that they require a greater number of satellites and additional relay stations on the ground to ensure adequate coverage.
OneWeb has been working to establish this network with a planned launch of ten satellites to commence testing and build the baseline infrastructure this year. A full launch campaign will continue next year when OneWeb also hopes to first introduce services.
Once it is in place, the OneWeb constellation and its on-the-ground relay stations will make it much easier to deliver high-speed connectivity to homes in remote areas, and to restore communications services after catastrophic events like hurricanes and earthquakes.
Greg Wyler, founder and executive chairman of OneWeb says:
“With the launch of our first production satellites set for later this year, we’re one step closer to bridging the global digital divide on land and in the air.”
Serving airlines actually plays an important role keeping the OneWeb network viable. Unlike GEO beams, which can be focused directly on land masses, LEO constellations will circle the earth with their beams over water for a considerable part of their service life. Airlines can ensure that the constellation is used efficiently.
The participation of AirTel and Sprint in this new alliance further empower OneWeb’s operations, with access to ground radio tower infrastructure to help relay messages in an uninterrupted manner, as well as helping boost signal speed, distribution and adoption of the service. Airtel is the third-largest mobile operator in the world with operations in 16 countries across Asia and Africa.
Gopal Vittal, MD & CEO (India & South Asia), Bharti Airtel says:
“We are delighted to be an initial member of this innovative technology platform to bring seamless connectivity to customers in the true sense. Over 370 million mobile customers across Airtel’s global network will be able to enjoy uninterrupted access to high-speed data services even while they are in flight.”
Dow Draper, Chief Commercial Officer, Sprint says:
“With our 5G network rolling out next year we’re investing heavily to make sure our customers have the best mobile Internet experience possible. As an initial member of the Seamless Alliance, we’re looking forward to enabling customers to experience Sprint’s high-speed connectivity in the air, hassle-free.”
That Airbus has taken a lead partnering with Delta and OneWeb on this program comes as no surprise. Airbus’ Skywise aviation data platform, announced at Paris Air Show last-year, is predicated on the principle that there will be a need for massive data exchange—an Internet of Things—between airplanes and the ground in the near-term future. Not only has Airbus committed itself to the fully connected aircraft concept, but Airbus CEO Tom Enders is a member of the Board at OneWeb.
Marc Fontaine, Airbus digital transformation officer says:
“We will enable an affordable and frictionless experience for passengers everywhere. Easy-to-use, high-speed connectivity is part of the next revolution in aerospace.”
It is likely that Delta will encourage other SkyTeam members to join this communications Alliance in time, and also that Gogo’s participation will mean that this network is ultimately available to other airlines.
The Seamless Alliance hopes to attract other industry operators beyond the five initial members to reduce costs and overcome challenges of infrastructure deployment as well as to set standards and specifications for the service and manage billing for use of the service.
Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), an industry association with members including airlines, inflight entertainment suppliers and inflight connectivity suppliers, believes the forging of this new alliance is good news for travellers and says that we can expect it to extend beyond the founding partners.
“The Seamless Air Alliance will work with all airlines, manufacturers, mobile providers, and connectivity companies worldwide that believe in the vision of a better passenger experience. The launch of this alliance should simply be viewed as a positive industry call to action to make seamless airline connectivity move from a theoretical possibility to reality.”