Posted on: 07 March 2010
Thales has officially opened its new Connectivity Suite as a demonstration tool and development lab for its entire range of inflight entertainment and connectivity applications.
Situated at the company’s UK base in Crawley, near London Gatwick airport, the Suite incorporates cabin applications such as WiFi, VoIP (voice over internet protocol), GSM and IFE web portal connectivity. Cockpit applications such as voice, data and electronic flight bag (EFB) use are also featured.
Key to demonstrating the capabilities of all the systems in real-time is the decision made by Thales to operate the whole Suite through the Inmarsat SwiftBroadband satellite network, just as if the users were on board an aircraft. Two antennae, identical to those which are fitted on aeroplanes, have been placed on the roof of the building housing the suite.
The decision to develop such a facility reflects the recognition of a business case for connectivity. “While the technology has been around for a while, with people like Connexion By Boeing and Tenzing, the business case hadn’t worked. Now almost all inflight entertainment RFPs from airlines include a connectivity element,” explained Alan Pellegrini, head of Thales In-Flight Entertainment Systems.
Pellegrini noted that an important change to make the business model viable has been the acceptance that connectivity is going the way of on-demand IFE. “It was originally thought of as a revenue generator, but has now become a standard offering,” he noted. “Also, SwiftBroadband (L-band) has provided the foundation for connectivity to grow.”
Thales estimates that the market for connectivity will exceed 12,000 aircraft in the next 10 years, a market worth around $2 billion. L-band type systems, the company believes, will remain the dominant products taking about 59% of the market with Ku/Ka-band systems at around 25% and air-to-ground (ATG) having 16%. “L-band and ATG are ‘single-aisle friendly’ which is where the mass market is,” Pellegrini remarked, adding that Thales, “as a major cabin systems integrator, will play a dominant role” in this market.
Pellegrini does not rule out developments in Ku/Ka and ATG. “We actually think that Ka-band applications could supersede not just Ku-band but possibly L-band too,” he indicated.
As noted, the Connectivity Suite – and therefore the TopConnect product suite – also includes cockpit systems which use SwiftBroadband. “Ours is the only technology to combine this cockpit and cabin capability,” Pellegrini claimed. “Moreover, the antenna for the TopConnect system is smaller than that for Ku-band systems, which means it can even go on small regional jets. So we are also providing a scalable solution that covers everything from high-end business jets to the largest widebody aircraft to which we deliver end-to-end connectivity on the ground and in the air.”
The unveiling of the Connectivity Suite coincides with the introduction of some new elements to the TopConnect suite. Pellegrini announced that Thales has a high-profile launch customer for these elements and that he hopes to reveal all the details at the Aircraft Interiors show in Hamburg during May.
The philosophy behind the new cabin functionality is simple. “Previous generations have received their entertainment and information from a broadcast model, but the current generation – with the advent of the internet – gets its information and entertainment on-demand. We embrace that model with our products,” explained Pellegrini.
Delivery of that content comes through smart applications supported by Thales’s wireless ground connectivity system plus the TopConnect satcom. “It’s a truly global solution, with no gaps in coverage and 864 kb/s bandwidth capability via two channels,” Pellegrini emphasised, “and with Inmarsat as the satellite service provider, there is little risk.”
The Connectivity Suite has zones dedicated to the variety of IFE and connectivity options available to the passengers, demonstration points for internet and smartphone connectivity and the same to show cockpit systems in use, plus laboratory areas where customers can work with Thales to tailor their systems.
The cabin applications depending on connectivity are managed, meaning that not everything a passenger sees is absolutely live. News programming, for example, might be loaded in a package when the aircraft is at the gate and then updated during the flight via satcom at intervals determined by the airline. A full update costs around 50 cents.
When it comes to web browsing, almost all the websites shown onboard are the mobile (Lite) versions which companies have developed for 3G mobile phones. So again the cost is kept down by these being text only versions not carrying huge photo files.
Compression of files also saves the airline money by reducing the amount of bandwidth taken during transmission. Not only does this reduce the cost of a single satcom transaction, it leaves a larger bandwidth open for use by other passengers, thus reducing the potential for the system to be overloaded. Compression of a VoIP phone call, for example, can reduce required bandwidth to around a third of that required for an uncompressed call.
A similar result is achieved with the ability to use cached pages when passengers are browsing. When a particular web page is called up, the system checks the cache to see if that page has been viewed by anyone else within a certain recent time period. If so, the system retrieves the page from the cache. This means one less satellite transmission which again reduces cost and increases system efficiency by keeping the pipe open for other users.
To demonstrate, among other capabilities, this method of keeping the pipe open, Thales has a bank of computers simulating an aircraft full of passengers accessing all the different elements of the system – internet browsing, sending e-mails and text (SMS) messages. Thus airline customers see the system being used in a full operational scenario.
Bernie Baldwin, editor, Low-Fare & Regional Airlines/Inflight-Online.com