Is Wifi the Future of Inflight Entertainment?

As I mentioned yesterday, the big buzz at the APEX expo last week was around wireless entertainment. Can it really take over for the existing airline-provided systems? Will the old systems go away entirely? I think the predictions of the death of airline-provided entertainment are far rosier than reality, Ted Stevens Knows Connectivitybut eventually, it will happen.

Something like Virgin America’s new system could replace wired systems. For the customer, it’s not really any different since there are still seatback screens. But when talking about wireless, most people are talking about providing a connection and maybe some content but then pushing the requirement for having a device on to the customer.

In one of the APEX education sessions, it was even proclaimed that the age of seatback devices would be over in five years. That’s just absurd.

It’s easy for a tech-savvy 20 or 30 something to say that airline provided devices won’t matter in five years, because that group is full of early adopters who already have the equipment needed to take advantage of any connectivity offered on an airplane. But what about the rest of the population? In five years, there will still be a tremendous number of travelers who can’t do it. Will the airlines just ignore them? No.

That doesn’t mean this won’t happen in 30 years, or even 20. As time goes on, there will be fewer people who aren’t connected. Eventually, it seems obvious to me that people will be able to provide their own devices and the airlines and entertainment companies can just focus on content. At most, they can offer some devices for rent while flying for the handful who will live under a rock 30 years from now (yet still fly).

That trend to focus on content is already starting to take hold. Both Gogo and Row 44 used to be pure internet providers. They provided the “pipe” and then travelers could take advantage of the web. But that wasn’t a long term strategy.

Gogo has launched its Gogo Vision offering which American has announced it will roll out on its entire wifi-equipped fleet. You can already try it out if you’re flying between JFK and both LAX and San Francisco on the airline. You’ll find a bunch of movies and TV shows available just like you would on a seatback system. Gogo charges from $.99 to $3.99 as introductory pricing – expect movies to probably settle around $6 or $7 in the long run.

This system doesn’t require signing up for internet access – that’s a separate option.

Meanwhile, Row 44 has also jumped into the content game. It’s a bit earlier for these guys so we don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, but we do know that several studios have signed up to allow Row 44 to stream their stored content to passengers, for a fee of course.

Row 44 has taken it a step further by offering streaming TV signals from the ground via the internet. A few stations including MSNBC, BBC World News, and Bloomberg have agreed to let the airline stream live TV to passengers. And there’s even a deal with Major League Baseball to stream live games.

As aircraft get higher internet bandwidth with newer technologies, these types of things will become even easier to deliver. LiveTV, the company that provides television on JetBlue and Continental, among others, is getting itself ready for this day.

Once it starts rolling out its first wifi-equipped aircraft next year (both JetBlue and the old Continental fleet have been committed to this), you would think it would be easy to just let people watch TV from their own devices. Heck, they don’t even need internet – they already have the pipe to the aircraft with TV so they just need a wireless access point to distribute it.

So what are the big drawbacks to people eventually bringing their own devices? I can think of two.

  1. Power – If the airline doesn’t provide power, then passenger-provided devices will still not be ideal. There’s always talk about how batteries are getting better and better, but I don’t buy it. As batteries get better, usage goes up. Why does my phone today last for a shorter time than mine 10 years ago? The battery is better, but it uses a lot more juice. And then there’s the fact that people can’t guarantee that they’re fully charged before a flight. Power is still necessary.
  2. The 10,000 foot problem – Airline provided systems can be used at any time, but passenger-provided devices can only be used above 10,000 feet. People really do want their “gate to gate” entertainment. Something will need to be figured out – maybe some sort of clamping device that can fix a personal device to the seatback. I’m not sure.

Eventually, these will all be worked out and the seatback entertainment device will be a thing of the past. I just think it’s going to take a long longer than the most aggressive proponents predict.

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