MIAMI — As the in-flight connectivity race gets hotter and hotter, passengers become increasingly aware of the companies behind the new technology, such as Gogo. But one company that most passengers have probably never heard of is Global Eagle Entertainment and its in-flight connectivity unit Row 44.
Row 44 is a major player in the in-flight connectivity industry, with operations spanning around the world thanks to a far-reaching active satellite network. John LaValle, CEO of Global Eagle, has lead Row 44 through the infancy of in-flight connectivity. Now, the company has equipped over 500 aircraft with their satellite technology on airlines from Southwest to Icelandair and Transaero.
Space vs. Ground
Row 44 utilizes Ku-band satellite technology exclusively, which LaValle says gives his company a distinct advantage over other solutions. “If you look at three quarters of the planet is covered by water, and we’re satellite and they’re air-to-ground, that’s the number one advantage right there just in terms of the earth’s geography. That’s a big advantage.”
Because of the wide coverage area satellites provides Row 44 was easily able to expand on a global scale, something that competitor Gogo has not yet accomplished. Although Gogo has promised international satellite coverage with Delta, they are over a year behind and have yet to deliver.
“I think there are tremendous advantages to satcom versus air-to-ground. To put it in the starkest terms possible, if you think about Southwest, when they made this decision four or five years ago, this was before they bought AirTran. So even though they have over 500 planes, very few of their planes would go over water at all…. there was never an airline that was more tailor made for air-to-ground than Southwest Airlines. But yet, they made the decision to go satellite.”
Now that the FAA has finally changed the rather archaic personal electronic device under 10,000 feet rule, Row 44 finds itself with a huge competitive advantage over Gogo. Gogo’s ATG network would require significant re-engineering to function under 10,000 feet, while Row 44 has already begun operating in this new airspace with Southwest.
“If you look at how much time is spent getting up to 10,000 feet, and how much time is spent descending from 10,000 to land, it’s a fairly material amount of time on a lot of flights.” said LaValle. “Then you have time waiting at the gate, people taxiing in and taxiing out, if you add up all the time on a domestic flight, its quite a bit of time… we think that it should improve the amount of business and take up rate we can realize.”
With the extra use of the satellite system under 10,000 feet comes the added costs of the additional bandwidth used, but LaValle is not worried. “The way we provision the bandwidth, we provision it for each airline differently based on how they’re pricing the product to their end users. If people are using the service a lot more than what we anticipate, then we might incur additional bandwidth costs. But right now, we think that we have provisioned the correct amount of bandwidth on a per plane basis in each region.”
Aside from internet services, Row 44 is also able to deliver a selection of IPTV feeds, which is currently offered in partnership with Dish Network for free on Southwest. LaValle says that the satellite system used by Row 44 is able to easily dedicate bandwidth specifically to IPTV, whereas ATG does not have this ability. LaValle is a believer in live TV on board, recounting how during early beta testing of the TV product, usage exploded during NFL games. During testing, a typical night might have seen 50-60 paid connections, but one NFL game netted over 600 purchases.
“One of the big advantages that we have is that I always like to say thank god for Apple Computer because they’re doing all the capex investment for the airline by developing these great products like iPads and smartphones that are capable of handling high definition content,” said LaValle. Because so many passengers are now bringing their own devices are board, airlines can shed the weight and associated costs of IFE systems, but still offer entertainment options.
One of the disadvantages to streaming content to personal devices is the fact that movie studios are still not a fan of distributing early window content over WiFi. Global Eagle, however, is in an interesting position among end user companies. Also in the portfolio of units at Global Eagle are IFP, Entertainment in Motion, Post Modern Group. This allows Global Eagle to leverage their content distribution arms in a way that best suits their connectivity arm.
Speaking about digital rights management and the current lack of pre-release movies, LaValle believes a resolution is near. “We expect to be able to solve that problem to the studios satisfaction, and it gives them an outlet to sell that much more high quality, high definition content to airline passengers.” Whether or not passengers will actually have access to pre-release content any time soon remains to be seen.
The Price Is Right
While Gogo might actually be known most for their high prices and sometimes very slow service, Global Eagle lets most of their airlines set their own prices for connectivity. This practice has led to Southwest offering connectivity for much less compared to their competition, while other airlines like Norwegian Air Shuttle have opted to remove cost from the equation entirely.
Once the barrier to entry is removed, more passengers use the service which has a finite amount of bandwidth. This can create a situation where no user receives a great experience. LaValle, however, doesn’t see offering WiFi for free as an issue. “I think it really comes down to setting expectations,” remarked LaValle when asked if offering WiFi for free is a mistake. “If you offer it for free, I think you have to create an expectation with the customers that you are going to be given a robust broadband experience, but it will have limitations. We’re not going to allow you to stream Netflix or HBO Go or other bandwidth intensive applications.”
LaValle believes that an initial learning curve was needed for passengers to acclimate to the nature of in-flight connectivity. “It’s not going to be like your FiOS experience at home…you have to think about how much bandwidth we can shower the plane with, and that’s divided by the number of users on the plane. I think the expectations are being set more effectively by airlines around the world to let people know what they can and cannot do.”
Phone Calls at 34,000 Feet?
This month, there was quite the uproar when the FCC announced it is planning to propose that passengers be allowed to use the cell phones in-flight. Currently, the FCC does not allow the use of GSM pico cells in United States airspace. For international carriers that have such a system, it must be disabled for any portion of a flight over US airspace. These systems have been in place for years on many airlines, and Row 44 has a solution of its own.
“We would be prepared to do that, I think we’re way, way ahead of the power curve in terms of GSM and what it would take. We’ve tested this for a couple of years now.” However, LaValle agrees that in-flight phone calls may be something the flying public in the United States just will not accept. “I don’t think that would be a welcomed sight domestically. It is more accepted internationally, but even in Europe I don’t think it’s something that people want to revisit now that Verizon AirFone is no longer on planes. People never really liked the idea that someone was sitting next to them speaking on a flight.”
However, if an airline does decide that GSM phone service is something they are interested in, Row 44 will be ready. “But if an airline wants that, and they’re making the decision based on what their passengers demand is, we would be in a position to provide it because we’ve already done all the heavy lifting on GSM, and it wouldn’t take us very long to deploy a solution for a carrier if they wanted one. GSM service also allows users to connect directly to the internet with the need to set up and pay for a WiFi based service.
Future of IFEC
In a remarkably short period of time, the flying public has gone from hearing of the concept of in-flight WiFi, to expecting it on every flight no matter the destination. Expectations have grown from a novelty service to an absolute business necessity. But where do we go from here?
“It’s going to be an absolute requirement for all carriers around the world,” said LaValle. “We live in a completely connected society, I think as more and more people enter the workforce as they graduate from college, I think it’s shocking to them when they get on an airplane and they don’t see a WiFi signal, because it’s just what they’ve grown up with.”
In the United States, mainline carriers have raced to provide fleet-wide WiFi, but that has not been the case in the rest of the world. Major airlines such as British Airways do not offer connectivity on aircraft, but LeVelle believes this will quickly change. “I think that you’re just going to see, eventually, every airline, maybe excluding some real small regional carriers that have incredibly short hops, over the long term it’s going to be ubiquitous.” Surveys conducted by Row 44 partner airlines show that the number one amenity asked for by passengers is now WiFi, along with a better meal or lower baggage fees. “WiFi is reigning supreme at the top of the list,” said LaValle.
Although WiFi and streaming content are great for Row 44 and the airlines alike, LaValle still thinks embedded IFE has its place in the future. “I think there’s always going to be a need for embedded IFE, I think that there’s a real advantage in people bringing on their own devices because it saves a tremendous amount of weight versus what IFE systems cost to install and the weight that they bring in terms of fuel burn, but I think the IFE providers are getting smarter and smarter in making lighter weight units. In tier one airlines for business class and first class, you’re always going to have some form of seatback or larger screen available for passengers. I think with low cost carriers, they can forgo the expense when they’re ordering from Boeing or Airbus…and rely on what passengers bring on board.”