Is Wifi the Future of Inflight Entertainment?

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.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

23 comments on “Is Wifi the Future of Inflight Entertainment?

  1. Brett,

    You missed part of the problem in your closing. You mentioned something about a clamping device, but what about “no electronic devices” below 10,000′? That’s just as big, if not bigger.

    1. Didn’t miss it – that’s part of the 10,000 foot problem. But I get the feeling that part is easier to resolve than the whole “flying projectile” issue.

    1. And not only that, he died in a plane crash.

      I wasn’t a fan of the guy, and I do get the “series of tubes” joke, but he did do a *lot* for aviation here in rural AK. I’m not saying “awww, too soon”, but at least recognize the irony of using a picture of “Uncle Ted” in this context.

  2. Hi Brett!

    I was, as you know, the person who made that prediction at APEX. It’s been distorted in the retelling from time to time, so let me clarify: I think that in five years we will see negligible new orders of in-seat embedded IFE systems.

    I’m not talking about pulling out already deployed systems or anything like that, but I stand by my prediction that their days are numbered. And this has critical implications for the rest of the IFE ecosystem.

    I won’t expound here, but those interested can read more on our blog:

    My Apex Presentation:

    And how it was received:

    1. I’m curious of how much of a split there will be between narrowbody and widebody planes. If you’re going transatlantic its even less likely that your laptop will last the whole flight, and more likely you’d like to watch some long form video entertainment on the plane.

      I see that many carriers have standardized around offering seat back IFE on their flights, or are trying to within a specific model. I think for them to jump out of offering this would be unlikely at best.

    2. Greg – I bet we’ll still see plenty of installs in five years. This industry does not move quickly and that’s a good thing in some cases. I just don’t think that things are going to move quickly enough to convince airlines to abandon seatback systems, even if there is a cost savings. But this is all speculation anyway. Let’s meet back here in 2016 and see for ourselves.

  3. The problem with WiFi is that it is currently not fast enough to properly stream movies or shows, especially when more than one person on the blame is using the service. I fly United PS from LAX to JFK often and use the WiFi. It’s great to surf the web and check email but to date I’ve never been able to use it to stream Netflix or HBO Go. Until that day comes, in-seat entertainment systems will be around. Especially on long haul flights.

    1. Allan;

      There are two big changes going on in the cabin; one is connectivity, and you’re right: it’s not there yet.

      But the second is passenger devices — the tablets, laptops and smartphones that we all bring aboard all the time. The next gen of IFE is streaming content directly into consumers’ devices via wifi, wether or not there is an internet connection to the ground.

      If you think about it from an airline’s perspective it’s a no brainer: passenger devices are free (for the airline), they are updated regularly, they are the latest technology, passengers already know how to use them, and passengers don’t expect tech support from the cabin crew.

      Using these for IFE can help turn the IFE cost center into a source of significant revenue–even profit–for airlines.

    2. Allen, you won’t be getting content from Netflix, Hulu, or HBOToGo. Greg alludes to this but there will be a server on the plane that has the content, so it only has to be move around the plane.

      That content itself will only take up bandwidth inside the plane not between the plane and the greater Internet.

      I’m still worried that WiFi will be a bit stressed if everyone is watching movie. Most devices will do 802.11n and all will do 802.11g, but I’m not quite sure that even 802.11n has enough bandwidth to handle 40-some passengers watching movies individually streamed to their seat.

  4. I’ll also add to this that both this split as well as the recent Netflix/Qwikster announcement has illuminated how much the technorati doesn’t understand the average user. Even within the 20s set not everyone wants technology to be the end all and be all of every solution.

    1. Not out of context at all. Sen Stevens was famous for referring to the internet as a series of tubes so it’s trying to make the point that EVERYONE “knows” that the internet is the next big thing.

  5. Let me offer a couple of counter points from someone that has managed both IFE Content and Hardware at 3 US Majors.

    1. Completely agree that there is/will be a drive to wireless distribution of content. As Brett pointed out however (as did Nicholas Barnard) airlines are not going to rely solely on a system that has the potential of failing – namely having enough streams to handle as many as 250 pax watching video at the same time while simultaneously surfing the series of tubes (keep the Ted Stevens joke going). On a 787 flying from IAH to AKL with a flight time of 15+ hours, an airline is not going to risk having passengers sit their for the entire flight with nothing to pass the time. (My last non-rev trip as an airline employee was on a 14 hour HKG to ORD segment where the IFE didn’t work prior to leaving the gate. Let’s just say that there were many angry people in all cabins on that a/c when we landed). Most airlines are notoriously risk averse (thank god) and until a system is proven to be able to handle the capacity required, wired systems will be around.

    2. With the above stated, I’m willing to split the difference between Brett and Greg Dicum and predict that on short haul, narrowbody aircraft, wireless systems will go the way of the dinosaur much more rapidly then long-haul widebody a/c.

    Brett – good seeing you at APEX…keep us updated on the arrival.

    1. Dan; I agree wired systems will persist longer on long haul wide bodies, but I think we’re going to see that airlines find the wireless systems to be effective and reliable sooner than you think.

      If you go into the offices of any large tech company right now — Google or Facebook or Microsoft — as well as many other non-internet companies, or a large lecture hall at any university, you will see hundreds or even thousands of users simultaneously using wifi for business-critical purposes all day long, every day.

      The technical challenges of placing WAPs in a metal tube are more intricate, but wifi is now a mature standard and the technology exists to make it work securely and reliably. And it’s only getting better and more reliable with every passing day.

  6. Once again, nothing, whether it be wireless BFE or wireless CPE, works without power. Once you go to the extent to run power to the seat/seat-back, you may as well use structured cable and deliver fiber as well. Especially so on long-haul equipment where CPE battery life will not last the flight duration.

  7. I think the future laptops on air craft my hit a bump. Years ago travelers were required to turn on electrical devices during screening. I imagine the delays this would cause prevents it from being done today. Looks like the FAA is waiting for an incident involving a laptop being used to bring dangerous substance aboard before they act. Like securing cockpit doors it take death and distruction before this government agency takes action. The airline cabin is for passengers, not luggage, portable entertainments system, pets and anything eles that interferes with safety or comfort of other passengers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier