Firms pursue upgraded Internet access on airplanes

Published February 26, 2018, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

By The Wall Street Journal

Airbus SE, Delta Air Lines, Inc., Sprint Corp. and two US satellite-services providers have kicked off an initiative to enhance Internet access on airliners, inviting other companies to join voluntary efforts to upgrade global standards for airborne connectivity.

The concept, still in its early stages, likely will require time to gain traction and develop necessary hardware and software changes. It also hinges on technical approvals from government regulators and aviation groups, along with overcoming traditional rivalries between wireless and satellite-services companies.

But if enough carriers, plane makers, communications providers and equipment suppliers eventually sign on, it could usher in an entirely new approach to airborne connectivity: faster speeds plus an improved user experience because passengers wouldn’t have to pay separately for broadband services on board.

A group calling itself the Seamless Air Alliance spelled out benefits of the potential changes on Sunday in Barcelona in conjunction with the opening of the Mobile World Congress, the annual gathering of the telecommunications industry. Mobile operators world-wide would be able to extend service directly into airliner cabins, allowing passengers to use their phones, tablets or other devices to seamlessly connect to the web while airborne.

As envisioned by proponents, connections would be available for an array of devices using various mobile networks just the way Wi-Fi hot spots now work on the ground. Connection speeds, rivaling the fastest cable access, would be comparable with those expected with widespread rollout of commercial fifth-generation, or 5G, cellular service across the US.

For passengers, extra benefits would be avoiding the time, and sometimes frustration, of having to authenticate devices and use credit cards to pay for them before logging on during flights.

In addition to Sprint, the No. 4 mobile carrier in the US by subscribers, the alliance includes New Delhi-based Bharti Airtel Ltd., which operates mobile networks in 16 countries across Asia and Africa.

Other early members include OneWeb Ltd., a satellite startup developing a global broadband network; EchoStar Corp.’s Hughes Network Systems; and in-flight Internet provider GoGo, Inc. Together, companies already backing the initiative carry some 150 million airline passengers and serve roughly 450 million mobile users world-wide.

For years, many airlines around the globe have struggled with persistent user complaints about high prices, low speeds, and sometimes-balky systems that offer Internet access for passengers. Some carriers have experimented with upgraded satellite connections, while others have opted to make such services free.

If the latest concept takes off, airlines could eliminate the costs and hurdles of certifying and installing customized cabin Internet systems, according to Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder. In an interview, Mr. Wyler said uniform hardware and operating standards are intended to provide outstanding “service quality that airlines and mobile operators can be proud of.”