When AeroMobile and OnAir (later SITA) first started bringing inflight GSM connectivity to airlines over 15 years ago, cellular and Wi-Fi networks were considered much more distinct. Now that the aviation industry is gravitating towards providing a more frictionless inflight Wi-Fi experience, including through the work being undertaken by the Seamless Air Alliance swear the Wireless Broadband Allianceis there still a market for GSM connectivity-specific kit on board aircraft?
Perhaps. But while the inflight cellular roaming model certainly filled a purpose — supporting voice and text in the beginning, and later mobile data — Wi-Fi has effectively won the battle, according to John Wade, who serves as vice president of the connectivity business unit at AeroMobile’s parent, Panasonic Avionics.
Noting that the process of equipping an aircraft for an inflight GSM network is more complex than Wi-Fi — traditionally requiring the installation of a cellular-enabled ‘picocell’ supported by a leaky feeder antenna down the length of the aircraft — Wade predicted that in time, Wi-Fi roaming on aircraft “will feel very much like the cellular picocell experience”, as passenger devices automatically authenticate and connect to the wireless access points (WAPs) on board.
“I think that will be the way of the future,” he says of the more seamless Wi-Fi connections coming to airlines. Indeed, Wade predicts that the commercial aviation industry will adopt the free Wi-Fi model for passengers by the end of this decade.
That’s not to say that inflight GSM is dead.
AeroMobile, alone, lists 19 airline customers on its website including Aer Lingus, Asiana, Cathay, Emirates, Etihad, ITA Airways, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, SWISS, TAP Air Portugal and Turkish Airlines, among others.
Several of these airlines offer both AeroMobile’s inflight GSM and Panasonic’s onboard Internet system as complementary connectivity solutions, as both packages are available for installation as either linefit, at the point of aircraft manufacture, or retrofit. For example, Aer Lingus no it offers Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity on its Airbus A330s, but Wi-Fi-only aboard its Airbus A321neoLRs. (While most AeroMobile installations are powered by Panasonic’s Ku-band satellite network, a small percentage still transmit via lower bandwidth L-band satellites).
Moreover, AeroMobile’s network in 2022 saw an increase in data consumption compared to pre-pandemic levels. That’s a testament to the work that AeroMobile/Panasonic has done to drive down the cost of inflight cellular roaming for passengers.
In contrast to inflight Wi-Fi, where airlines or inflight connectivity providers decide what to charge passengers, AeroMobile sells onboard access to cell phone carriers on a wholesale basis, and those carriers set the roaming price. The charges are billed directly to the passenger by the telco and can vary wildly (often akin to international roaming rates). But AeroMobile, and indeed SITA, have for years joined forces with mobile operators around the world to include inflight roaming in more cost-effective retail packages.
An arrangement forged late last year between Panasonic and AT&T, for instance, allows passengers that have added the AT&T International Day Pass (IDP) to their mobile line to use the device on AeroMobile-fitted aircraft for the same daily fee as they would be charged in any other IDP destination — roughly only $10/day.
“We have seen mobile network operators around the globe — especially the Middle East, Europe, and Asia — launch compelling in-flight retail offers, and we’re excited that operators in the US are now embracing the overseas inflight connectivity market,” said Wade in a statement at the time.
The Panasonic executive later told RGN that, after the AT&T arrangement went into effect, “We did see a very significant increase with some airlines that operate the AeroMobile service.”
In the US, passengers are prohibited from using their phones and other devices to connect to cellular networks in-flight, and indeed to make voice calls. But Europe is another matter. In late November 2022, the European Commission ruled that airlines can offer the latest 5G technology on their planes alongside prior-generation onboard mobile technology (4G, 3.5G etc).
“Since 2008, the Commission’s implementing decision has reserved certain frequencies for mobile communications on planes, allowing airlines to provide messaging, phone calls and data services to passengers flying in the EU. This update of the Commission implementing decision on mobile communications onboard aircraft paves the way for the wide-spread deployment of 5G services,” explained the EC in a statement.
The service is provided within the cabin of an equipped aircraft using special network equipment, the so-called ‘picocell’, to connect the users and route calls, texts, and data, typically via a satellite network, between the airplane and the ground- based mobile network.
Some European airlines with inflight GSM kit installed on aircraft nevertheless prohibit voice calls, including Aer Lingus and Lufthansa, for instance.
Whether or not AeroMobile and SITA will table formal 5G solutions to the market given the EC’s announcement remains to be seen, although SITA previously shared color around its work to remove a key pain point from the package, ie, the leaky feeder.
Both companies are certainly well positioned to capitalize on the EC’s decision, if they so choose, as they each started putting the building blocks in place to support 5G well before the Covid crisis, as detailed by RGN in a February 2019 article.
At that time, SITA said it would consider 5G as an extension of its existing inflight mobile connectivity services, noting that the emphasis will be on ensuring seamless connections. “As a customer, on the ground, whether you are on 3G or 4G or 5G, your mobile can connect automatically to any network. This is seamless, frictionless. This is what we try to replicate within the aircraft. The experience on the ground should be the same on the aircraft,” said a SITA executive.
Even so, with inflight Wi-Fi now becoming more frictionless, AeroMobile and its parent Panasonic see Wi-Fi as retaining its clear lead, with Wade noting: “I think the world is going to move in the direction of Wi-Fi roaming. “