Theory of connectivity: Aircraft streaming systems

Streaming systems, airlines, IFE

Technology is changing the way airlines manage inflight entertainment and as Keith Mwanalushi finds, streaming services make an interesting case, especially for short haul.

Traditionally, airlines have shunned away from offering inflight entertainment (IFE) options on short and medium flight sectors and usually for valid reasons. But as consumer expectations evolve, and aircraft connectivity increases, huge changes are underway.

This has been an ongoing movement for the last few years. Back in 2017, for instance, the IAG Group announced it would be the launch customer for Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network (EAN). IAG is equipping several hundred aircraft with EAN including some short haul aircraft within the group.

Streaming, aircraft
There is growing demand for new Hollywood released content to be streamed

EAN allows European passengers to use their personal devices for internet browsing, video streaming, gaming and other online services. In July, Inmarsat said almost two million passengers had travelled on flights with access to EAN marking a paradigm shift in the airline passenger experience for the continent.

Even more airlines are rolling out streaming IFE systems.

“We see the market for onboard IFE streaming as strong and growing,” Mike Pigott, senior vice president of Connectivity Solutions, Global Eagle tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business. Clearly, streaming-based IFE systems offer airlines another touch point to enhance the passenger experience.

Pigott says by utilising a passenger’s own personal entertainment device, such as a smartphone or tablet, it is possible to deliver all the same types of entertainment and information content available on an embedded seatback IFE system, and, when coupled with connectivity, even more experiences.

Global Eagle offers a number of IFE streaming systems, ranging from solutions that can be walked onto an aircraft (or used to mitigate disruption in an already installed seatback system), to high performance streaming IFE systems that are installed on an aircraft, and fully connected IFE and connectivity systems.

Kevin Clark, CEO at Bluebox Aviation Systems, also feels the market is rapidly ever-changing – both the technology and demand: “Still only one-fifth of airlines have wireless streaming on board, so though it may seem a given, we’re still introducing more airlines to the advantages – in terms of service enhancement and ancillary revenue generation of IFE,” Clark observes.

Wireless streaming
Clark says only one-fifth of airlines have wireless streaming onboard

From the ground up

The likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime may be willing to pay to get their content integrated with streaming content onboard, especially on short sectors, it is widely thought.

“The fact that Netflix and Amazon are entertaining this is interesting,” states Clark. He says as well as the challenges of ensuring that content is licensed for the in-flight environment, they have often been touted as one argument for connectivity as passengers already have these services and want access on board.

“However, it’s hardly economical or fully technically viable to stream such content to an aircraft now. Onboard integration, even of a limited set of the most in-demand content for a particular region – especially for the exciting series they’ve been so successful at developing – would add value to the overall content set for an airline,” Clark explains.

He adds that streaming systems are feeding passenger demands for different types of content, for example, he sees the demand for more ‘snackable’ content grow considerably. “This, in turn, contributes to making IFE a viable service enhancement for regional airlines such as our customers Air Inuit, Solaseed and Jazeera.”

Content producers certainly see the advantage of a captive airline audience and Pigott from Global Eagle reckons the demand is there from passengers who want to see their on-the-ground experience replicated in the air. He says all the streaming IFE systems Global Eagle offers include the capability to store and deliver entertainment from a vast number of content producers, including Netflix and Amazon Prime.

“Carriers could create an IFE product that includes access to locally hosted subscription provider content,” Pigott explains. “We see the adoption of streaming IFE and connectivity platforms, such as those offered by Global Eagle, as a major opportunity for improvement in the passenger experience for all carriers, but in particular for LCC and regional airlines.”

Pigott says that the business models used by those carriers to adopt streaming IFE may very well include a desire for content producers to push their content into more markets not generally available today.

“We also continue to see improvements in connectivity offerings made by airlines around the world, including our customers, which at the right economics can offer direct streaming access to Netflix and Amazon Prime type platforms.

“Interestingly, as we’ve seen with Disney entering the streaming market with their Plus product, the licensing of the content is a key factor as they take back large parts of Netflix’s offer.”

Streaming, inflight wifi
Passengers have a growing appetite for inflight wifi

Being able to match broad cabin passenger demographics requires the choice of an aggregated content universe, which Global Eagle’s own worldwide specialist distributors, and expert licensing with Hollywood and ‘new original content’ creators, provides, Pigott states.

There is also a growing appetite for recently released Hollywood movies to be streamed to personal devices onboard the aircraft: “Content can be curated and delivered in real-time to suit specific airline requirements, meaning the latest Hollywood movies can be uploaded as soon as the license window is available, rather than needing to wait for the usual monthly cycle,” Pigott comments.

Global Eagle’s scale of Hollywood licensing allows the company to work with the distributors to continually push boundaries and enhance passengers streaming experiences.

The recent alignment of seatback and streaming window release for Digitally Rights Managed (DRM) Hollywood content is an example of how Global has done this – meaning an airline no longer has a difference in movie availability across its fleet dependent on seatback hardware versus own device streaming IFE solutions.

“In theory, as soon as a movie is released with the airline license, it could be uploaded to the aircraft and passengers could be watching it the very same day,” Pigott informs.

Clark says by the generally accepted definitions, true Early Window Content (EWC) is still restricted from streaming to passenger owned devices. However, he sees the window getting shorter and the technology used to ensure the necessary content security continues to evolve.

“We utilise the latest technologies available to ensure that systems are able to deliver protected content in as smooth a manner possible,” Clark continues. “For example, we can provide airlines with systems that stream protected content to a range of device browsers, utilise their inbuilt security features thereby removing the need for passengers to have to download an app. The availability of such technology is one of the factors influencing content providers.”

Technological advancement in the field of satellite communication is anticipated to propel the global demand for connectivity onboard primarily satellite-based broadband technology. Inmarsat says their aviation connectivity solution, EAN can be accessed on over 100 airline routes, offering incomparable speeds and uninterrupted coverage throughout those flights.

In July, during a ‘soft launch’ phase of the solution with initial airlines, Philip Balaam, president of Inmarsat Aviation, said EAN had established an unprecedented new benchmark for inflight broadband, not only in Europe but on a global basis.

“We are extremely pleased with the initial response from both the airlines and their passengers, which is testament to the important role EAN is already playing in the European aviation industry. This vision of a unique, pan-European high-speed inflight connectivity network is being deployed with advanced infrastructure in the skies and on the ground.”

IFE streaming
Pigott says the market for onboard IFE streaming as strong

Inmarsat suggests the system has the fastest installation time for a connectivity solution, requiring under nine hours per aircraft, meaning significantly less downtime.

Right connectivity, right price

For airlines, especially low fare operators, it is important that inflight broadband is at the right price point and quality to offer seamless IFE content.

Pigott says one key benefit in the IFE and connectivity business is to guide airlines on finding the right balance of affordability and performance to target a particular passenger experience, including for streaming services delivered over connectivity: “We have access to the broadest coverage, the highest performing hardware and the network management experience to make it all work. However, even the best technology has some limits. For example, in some cases, geo-political issues require the muting of a connectivity service over a particular country.”

From an economic perspective, the affordability of even higher performing connectivity has vastly improved over the past decade and Pigott expects that trend to continue (as much as he also expects the trend toward higher passenger demand to continue). “Fundamentally, we believe most airlines around the world will want to deliver a mix of offerings to find the right balance between affordability and performance in passenger experience.”

One example that Pigott cites is the Airtime Live TV service selected by one of Global Eagle’s largest customers, Southwest Airlines, connecting and entertaining over 700 aircraft.

“We worked with our customer to find the right live television line-up and delivery system and coupled it with a sponsorship offering to make the entire service more affordable. It has been a huge success and this year is celebrating its seventh year of service. Across all connected IFE fleets, rich data capture generates extensive real-time granular insight for incisive passenger behaviour and technical performance,” Pigott reports.

Clark from Bluebox believes there are a number of evolving business cases for the application of connectivity which can bring considerable value and the passenger IFE experience can blend elements of on and off aircraft content, however, he doesn’t believe we are yet at the stage where the economics and technology supports seamless IFE in such an environment.

In terms of pure streaming quality, Global Eagle recently launched the Network Resource Management (NRM) service that offers airlines a direct line into the specific experience delivered to every device on board their fleets.

Streaming, satellite-based broadband technology
Satellite-based broadband technology will be a key enabler

Pigott says by using the vast knowledge of connectivity gained over the past decade, the company can work with airlines to deliver one service or tiers of service that directly target the type of experiences desired by airlines while also maintaining the overall affordability of the offering.

“We launched NRM with Norwegian earlier this year and we expect to see demand grow as airlines look to create distinctive service propositions, blending cost-effective free internet access with a premium offering, and the ability to generate incremental revenue.”

As air passengers get accustomed to even more streaming services on the ground it is vital that the infrastructure in the skies is ready.

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