The year in review: What happened in inflight connectivity in 2019?

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As 2019 draws to a close, we take a look back at some of the biggest IFEC trends and developments of the year. Get Connected would also like to take this opportunity to thank our loyal readers and wish you all the best for 2020!

Onboard live TV
What has 2019 brought the world of IFEC? Photo: Emirates

Free WiFi, sort of

We’ve been waiting the longest time for widespread free WiFi to become a thing. But, it looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer yet.

2019 saw the addition of some free WiFi services, but most were not much more than a flash in the pan. Singapore’s free and unlimited WiFi is the preserve of first class only, while other premium passengers get a measly 100MB of allowance. Cathay Pacific’s free WiFi is similarly only for first class, and not yet on all of its fleet, but at $20 for uncapped WiFi all flight long, even those down the back of the plane can enjoy affordable connectivity.

cathay first
Cathay’s first class passengers now have free WiFi. Photo: Cathay

Delta’s free WiFi is still some time away, and Virgin Atlantic sees free WiFi in its future, and for every passenger on the plane… just not yet.

In fact, the only airline that continues to crack the free WiFi nut is JetBlue, with free, high speed WiFi at every single seat. The airline announced that Viasat will be supplying its forthcoming fleet of A220 aircraft too, presumably still free for all; we can’t wait to try that out!

Supplier diversification in airlines

One of the biggest trends of 2019 has been a sense of diversification from airlines in regard to their connectivity providers. When Qatar signed with Gogo, this became a second supplier alongside Inmarsat. Turkish Airlines, a long term Panasonic customer, chose Global Eagle for its narrowbody requirements.

The most diverse perhaps of all the airlines this year was Air France, who added Inmarsat for its A350s, making them the third supplier of the airline. Gogo has its 2Ku product on 124 of Air France’s aircraft, while Global Eagle supplies its medium haul fleet of A320 family aircraft.

Air france WiFi
A good deal of the AF fleet is getting WiFi-equipped, but by many different suppliers. Photo: Air France

Diversification makes a lot of sense from an airline’s point of view. Not only does it give them more purchasing power when leveraging new contracts, it also allows them to not have all their eggs in one basket. Perhaps learning from the Boeing 737 MAX scandal that has punctuated 2019, airlines are perhaps attempting to spread their risk a little wider in case of unforeseen circumstances.

Biometric payments on the way

Southwest Airlines launched a new Apple Pay facility for passengers to purchase inflight WiFi with a fingerprint, but it seems this is only the start of something much bigger in the IFEC and payment processing field.

UTAP are working with companies such as CellPoint Digital to add biometric and flexible payment processing for passengers to buy everything from duty free to seat reservations and even the flights themselves. UTAP and CellPoint Digital are striving to make biometric payments a seamless process, removing hassle and uncertainty from the purchasing environment.

We fully expect to see a lot more of this over the course of 2020 and beyond.

LEO mega-constellations start to shape up

Over the course of 2019, we saw some major developments in the LEO sector. Iridium launched a batch of 10 NEXT LEO satellites in January, completing the $3bn upgrade of its constellation.

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Not to be outdone, OneWeb put its first six LEO satellites into orbit in February, and in July the company delivered real-time HD streaming from orbit. Later in the summer, the company opened its mass production plant for its satellites and said that it will begin commercial service in the 4th quarter of 2021.

Oneweb coverage
The LEO market is hotting up. mage: OneWeb

Most excitingly, these two companies, Iridium and OneWeb, announced a tie up in September that will likely see global combined L and Ku-band services on offer.

Space X too were busy putting up satellites, adding another 60 just last month. The company has reaffirmed its intention to deploy as many as 30,000 satellites in total, despite a near miss with the European Space Agency’s Aeolus satellite.

All of these successes come with the shadow of a rather nasty conflict brewing in the LEO sphere. It seems the regulators were not ready for such a huge influx of providers so soon, and are certainly unprepared if and when any other companies choose to enter the space. Right now, it’s up to these companies to prove who was first in the Ku-band if they want to secure their pick of the spectrum.

Inmarsat’s groundbreaking 2019

One satellite company that is going from strength to strength is undoubtably Inmarsat. Since the start of the year, Global Xpress has gone live on Citilink, Gulf Air, SAS, Virgin Atlantic, Air Asia, Air France and probably some others that I’ve missed.

Iberia A320
Iberia was one of the first airlines to use the EAN. Photo: Iberia

Notably, the European specific EAN launched in 2019, with British Airways first to test the system. Since then Iberia and Vueling have also gone live and, according to all sources, 2020 will be the year for EAN!

As well as success on Earth, Inmarsat had some pretty epic achievements in space this year too. The company announced its HEO satellites to be launched for GX coverage over the Arctic and successfully launched its GX5 satellite just last month.

Gilat had quite a year

The Israeli connectivity specialist Gilat had a great 2019, setting new benchmarks and securing new partnerships all over the place. Back in May, Honeywell picked Gilat’s modem for its JetWave Ka-band solution, and then in August Gilat announced its move to business aviation complete with millions of dollars of orders on the books.

Gilat achieves ESA industry milestone – antenna image
Gilats low profile antenna. Photo: Gilat

Towards the end of the year, the Wavestream HPT notched up a $5m order from Global Eagle, but that wasn’t the end for the plucky company. To wrap up the year, the company became the first to prove its ESA in flight, and also set a new benchmark for LEO connections, achieving over 1GB in tests.

Gogo’s 5G dream getting closer

Gogo declared its intention to launch a 5G network for aviation connectivity back in May this year. By October, it had announced three key partners in the project, including Cisco, Airspan Networks and FIRST RF. The project is being targeted for a 2021 launch.

Qatar 787
Qatar has selected Gogo’s 2Ku solution for its A380s and 787s. Photo: Qatar

To add another feather to its cap, Gogo secured its first Middle East customer at the Dubai Airshow in November. Qatar Airways picked Gogo to supply connectivity on 70 of its aircraft, including its Dreamliners and A380 aircraft.

What did I miss? What were your big inflight connectivity ‘moments’ of 2019?

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