In-Flight Internet From Space Takes Off
PARIS - Panasonic Avionics Corp. is continuing with its ambitious program to install satellite broadband links into long-haul commercial jets and is specifically continuing a large contract with EMS Technologies of the United States and Canada, and Starling Advanced Communications of Israel, to supply the Ku-band hardware, according to the three companies.
The effort, which seeks to apply lessons learned from Boeing Co.?s abandoned Connexion program,?is moving more slowly than expected because of the downturn in commercial air travel and slowdown in orders for new aircraft, according to David Bruner, vice president of global communication services at Panasonic.
Bruner said a half-dozen commercial airlines have permitted the program, called exConnect, to keep moving forward out of the conviction that installing broadband data and voice links to commercial flights is a must-have capability. He said the airlines view the technology as being just as important for normal airline operations and crew-to-ground communications as it is to meet passenger demand for in-flight Internet and wireless telephone access.
Lake Forest, Calif.-based Panasonic Avionics signed a multiyear contract with EMS Technologies of Atlanta and Ottawa?to supply exConnect antennas in October 2008. As part of the transaction, EMS contracted with Starling, a start-up Israeli company, to provide technology for the antennas.
The contracts were signed just as the extent of the current economic downturn were coming into view. In the months since, cash-strapped airlines have jettisoned as many nonessential expenses as possible. In a Nov. 23 interview, Bruner conceded that several airlines that appeared on the verge of committing to exConnect withheld their orders.
But 200 long-haul commercial jets still are being equipped, as airlines that Bruner said are not normally considered industry heavyweights have stepped forward to modernize their fleets. He said the airlines have declined to announce their plans publicly for competitive reasons.
?If you had asked me nine months ago where we hoped to be, I would have mentioned about double the current figure,? Bruner said. ?Of course the global recession has had an effect. But we have seen that our customers are still committed to it, but some are starting with the certification of one plane to give them time to integrate the new capability into their overall operations systems.?
Bruner said that one of the lessons Panasonic learned from Boeing?s Connexion is that aircraft broadband needs to focus on all possible connectivity requirements to and from the jet. A major focus has been crew communications and, more broadly, airline operations for which broadband access will have the same efficiency-generating effect as on any other business. In addition, exConnect includes a mobile telephone service that allows passengers?to use their own telephones.
Bruner said the exConnect project owes a debt of gratitude to Boeing for winning regulatory support for commercial aeronautical broadband. ?People often underestimate the expense of an effort like this,? Bruner said. ?It is huge, and we were able to take advantage of the fact that Boeing was there first. They set the precedent, and because of them, we have received regulatory approval in three-quarters of the world?s nations in less than a year.?
Two principal exConnect suppliers have confirmed the continued growth in the aeronautical broadband sector in recent weeks.
In an April 9 report to its shareholders, EMS said it is maintaining its ambitious growth forecast for 2009, despite the global economic downturn, in large part because of the continued strength of its products for airline connectivity. The company said its customers include U.S. airlines Jet Blue?and Frontier, Canada?s WestJet and Australia?s Virgin Blue in addition to Panasonic?s exConnect.
The EMS contract with Starling is valued at up to $60 million over seven years, with an initial guarantee of $9 million, according to Starling?s majority shareholder, Elron Electronic Industries Ltd., also of Israel.
Jacob Keret, vice president for sales at Starling, said his company ? which had no revenue to speak of in 2008 and reported an operating loss of $8.4 million after a similar loss of $7 million in 2007 ?is continuing research and development into Ku-band antenna systems for the aeronautical broadband market.
In an April 22 interview, Keret said Starling?s patented antenna technology is using the aeronautical sector as its first and most important application but is also moving into land-mobile applications. The company signed two contracts with Chinese customers, for a total of around $2.7 million, to provide Starling Ku-band antennas and related gear for emergency vehicles.
?Coming from the aero world, we have had to learn to make our antennas small and lightweight,? Keret said. ?That is our big advantage.?
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