Tales from APEX Expo 2013, part 1: All about in-flight wifi

I spent last week working at the Airline Passenger Experience (APEX) Expo in Anaheim, CA. The event features both airlines and vendors covering everything from seat manufacturers to IFE systems to the companies which make all the wiring harnesses and other behind-the-scenes stuff. Oh, and it was collocated with the IFSA conference which was all about food & beverage offerings on board. I spoke with dozens of vendors to get insight on where they were in developing new technologies and getting them deployed on airplanes. And there was both good news and bad news to be found. Here’s my take on the most significant things which came about at the show, at least that I saw. (Note: There was too much to cover in one post; this is part 1 and focuses mostly on in-flight wifi. Part 2 covers lots of other bits.)

In-flight wifi is getting a lot faster, but it still isn’t going to be an “at home” experience.

There was a lot of talk at the show about new connectivity options. Gogo stole the spotlight with their GTO announcement, promising 60 megabit download speeds at much lower costs for their airline partners. There is some question about the bandwidth costs (it is pretty clear that the hardware/operating costs will be lower) and also the capacity of the constellation overall to handle the demand GTO will enable. It is going to be interesting to watch that shake out next year. ViaSat, the provider behind the LiveTV offering which is finally taking flight, was also rather candid about the capabilities of their system, though not 100% in a way which inspires confidence as a customer. The company has been claiming a “12 megabit/passenger” offering but without much in the way of detail to back it up. While demonstrating the system for me (on the ground rather than in a plane, sadly) the ViaSat rep was much more reserved on that promise, noting that they weren’t going to actually deliver gigabit (12megabit*150pax) capacity to the plane; the system is being configured initially in the 20mbit range and the kit can handle ~80mbit with just back-office configuration changes before they have to start investigating other avenues.

ViaSat Ka-band antenna; all the control bits are inside the frame making for a smaller kit overall
ViaSat Ka-band antenna; all the control bits are inside the frame making for a smaller kit overall

The other aspect which I found interesting was all the back-and-forth between the vendors about the pros and cons of the different technologies. I bounced between the booths of Gogo, LiveTV and Arnic plus sat in on a panel of 9 reps from those companies and more. Some spoke about the performance they could offer, others about how their technology was cheaper and others about how their system was better for the airline looking to implement the service. Only one vendor – LiveTV – was openly willing to enthusiastically say how happy they were to see the competition also being successful in their efforts. That’s not to say that they don’t think their own product is compelling, but chatting with their team it was clear that they don’t think they need to be on every plane to be successful. For LiveTV the competition and growth in the market is seen as a good thing in that it brings down the overall costs of providing the service to everyone. And that’s a win for the passengers, a win for the airlines and a win for most of the service providers, too.

Companies you’ve never heard of are the ones with the biggest impact on your inflight experience.

I met a lot of people this week and was introduced to many companies I’ve never heard of before. Two which stood out as names you’ll probably never hear of again, but without which the industry would not be moving forward with such speed, are Kontron and Thinkom. Kontron provides the hardware for the “last mile” connectivity on in-flight wifi systems. They make the access points and head-end server which IFE companies integrate into their offerings. And they are, by far, the leader in the market. They announced a couple big contract wins at the show as well as upgrades to their product line. For a company I had never really heard of before walking in the door on Monday morning I was quite surprised at how many different booths from other vendors had hardware from Kontron out on display, albeit with a different logo on the box.

Kontron's Cab-n-Connect wifi access point. Odds are you're using one of these when you get online in the air.
Kontron’s Cab-n-Connect wifi access point. Odds are you’re using one of these when you get online in the air.

Thinkom makes satellite antennae which planes are using to connect to the internet. They are providing the antenna for Gogo’s new GTO solution and they’ve got hardware which can support both Ku and Ka communications. Their antennae are smaller and lighter than the prior generation. Thinkom was mostly in the military space previously; their move into commercial is going to be very interesting to watch in the coming years. I’m hoping to get a more thorough story out on Thinkom in the next couple weeks; be on the lookout for that.

Thinkom's incredibly slim satellite antennae. Fewer moving parts and a smaller profile make it lighter and cheaper to operate than prior generations.
Thinkom’s incredibly slim satellite antennae. Fewer moving parts and a smaller profile make it lighter and cheaper to operate than prior generations.

The in-flight connectivity market for commercial flights is still incredibly young. It was only 5 years ago that Gogo and American Airlines had their first flight with the original ATG kit in operation. Capacity is up significantly since then and the pace of deployments and performance are both increasing. That bodes well for the connected customer in many ways.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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