Lufthansa Systems is looking at pairing its BoardConnect Portable IFE solution with low-bandwidth inflight connectivity delivered by Iridium NEXT satellites.
BoardConnect is the company’s Wi-Fi-based inflight entertainment system, which is also the backbone for its high-speed Inmarsat GX inflight connectivity aboard Lufthansa’s Airbus A320 fleet.
The lighter BoardConnect Portable option gives airlines a simple, flexible, all-in-one solution for cost-efficient operations. Its Mobile Streaming Units (MSU) combine a server and access points in a single box.
Each MSU can provide high-quality streamed content for up to 50 passengers. By using two or three devices, BoardConnnect Portable can service a complete single-aisle aircraft.
Lufthansa Systems is now considering whether BoardConnnect Portable could be paired with a lower-cost, low-bandwidth satellite connection, such as will be available via Iridium’s NEXT low-earth orbiting satellites.
Iridium NEXT is the company’s next-generation satellite constellation, replacing and enhancing its existing network of low-Earth orbit satellites that span the entire globe.
Iridium has NEXT launches scheduled, marking, it says, “one of the biggest tech refreshes in history, completely replacing the only satellite constellation providing 100-percent truly global communications coverage”.
The company announced the successful launch of its first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-Earth orbit in January. This was followed by the launch of its second block of 10 satellites in June.
The third block of 10 is currently scheduled for launch on October 4.
Eventually it plans to have a constellation of 75 Iridium NEXT satellites deployed over eight different launches.
While Iridium NEXT would only offer speeds of about 500kbps to the aircraft, compared with Inmarsat GX’s 30Mbps, Lufthansa Systems says there is a good financial reason for some airlines to consider it.
Talking to “Get Connected” at the London Aviation Festival, Jan-Peter Gaense, Lufthansa Systems’ Director, Project and Certification, said the combination of BoardConnect Portable and Iridium NEXT could offer big advantages to smaller airlines wishing to put their “toe in the water” with inflight connectivity.
“Many smaller airlines, that have not adopted full-blown inflight connectivity, might find the solution appealing,” Gaense said.
“Inmarsat GX, and the forthcoming European Aviation Network air-to-ground solution, are the best high-speed solutions out there, but for a smaller capital outlay an airline could use Iridium NEXT’s lower bit-rate solution for a range of applications.
“For example, it could support basic messaging, such as iMessage or WhatsApp, or validate credit card payments.
“It could also provide a platform for ancillary revenues, real-time advertising or basic content updates.”
It could also be used for ACARS messaging over IP or basic aircraft eEnablement.
The other strong selling point is that a small, passive, window-mounted Iridium “puck-type” antenna would not require an STC. And neither does BoardConnect portable.
“A lot of smaller airlines mull over the cost of fitting a full-blown high-bandwidth solution, but end up doing nothing,” Gaense said.
“Adding a lower-cost Iridium NEXT solution might allow them to try out basic inflight connectivity with BoardConnect Portable, with a view to a possible upgrade at a later date.”
The Iridium NEXT constellation is not yet complete, but Lufthansa Systems is looking at undertaking some testing around mid-2018.
The idea could also be extended to include Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband solution, which can deliver up to 200kbps to a small fuselage-mounted antenna.
“It would give airlines a digital inflight connectivity solution on a “try it and see what it could do for you” basis,” Gaense concluded.
Lufthansa Systems says it plans to talk more about the Iridium NEXT/BoardConnect Portable solution at the Apex Expo in Long Beach, California, later this month.