Mar 03, 2014

    Inflight Wi-Fi all set for big take-off

    WI-FI in aircraft, hobbled in the past by slow speeds, could soon take off as new technology enables passengers to surf the Web as if they were in a coffee shop, Internet executives said.

    More airlines are rolling out new and improved services, thanks to satellite technology, industry leaders said at the recent Singapore Airshow, with the public increasingly demanding Wi-Fi on planes.

    United States-based Honeywell Aerospace and Gogo, which supply inflight connectivity systems to airlines, are collaborating with satellite giant Inmarsat to implement the "first global high-speed broadband for the skies", dubbed the Global Xpress (GX) Aviation network.

    Mr Briand Greer, president of Honeywell Aerospace Asia Pacific, said inflight Wi-Fi could generate US$2.8 billion (S$3.5 billion) for the company alone over the next 20 years.

    He estimated that around 7 to 8 per cent of airlines currently offer wireless connection, but said this number is expected to grow to 25 per cent by 2018.

    After years of being bogged down by weak demand due to poor signal quality, inflight Wi-Fi can now enable download speeds of up to 50Mbps, said Mr Greer.

    "How we describe it is, it will be like you are sitting at Starbucks with your smartphone, your computer and your iPad," he told reporters.

    Onboard Wi-Fi is not a new idea - European carrier Lufthansa debuted Conexxion by Boeing's system in 2004.

    But by 2006, the company announced its exit after the expected growth in the market did not materialise.

    However, recent surveys by Airbus and Honeywell suggest that the market might now be ready as passengers increasingly expect airlines to have inflight wireless services.

    One of the future trends highlighted was that Asian business passengers would expect Wi-Fi-enabled cabins with telephone and conference-calling facilities.

    When flying over land, planes use telecommunication towers to transmit Internet signals, but during long-haul flights, when they fly over large expanses of water, consistent connectivity becomes a problem. In those cases, a satellite network is needed.

    In December, Inmarsat launched the first of three satellites that will serve the GX network. Air China will be the first airline to test it, on its A330 fleet in the second quarter of next year.

    Singapore Airlines, which launched its US$50 million inflight connectivity programme in September 2012, said it planned to finish equipping its aircraft with the hardware by next year.