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Alexis Hickox, Head of Global Business Development, Cabin Solutions at Collins Aerospace and Boeing’s Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity Strategy Lead, Bryan Wiltse, reveal the latest in cabin wifi and connectivity thinking, as Paul E Eden reports
 

No matter how large the satcom antenna or well-stocked the server, wireless IFE and communications count on reliable, easily accessed wifi connectivity between aircraft systems and passenger devices. And while messaging and streaming video keep the customers in the cabin happy, airlines are also finding an increasing role for wifi enabled data transfer, not only for aircraft health monitoring and safety services, but also inflight planning and crew communications.

Compare your mobile phone, tablet, laptop or games console to the latest product online, and chances are it’s already not the latest model – obsolescence in 12 months is easily achieved, and for a long lead time industry that’s as tightly regulated as aerospace, keeping pace is a major headache. The airlines and connectivity providers have themselves compounded the challenge with years of claiming their service brings a home or office experience to the sky.


Some industry insiders claim the experience has improved so quickly that inflight connectivity has struggled to keep pace. The reality is that when it comes to moving data on or off the aircraft, physics and technology have so far denied airlines the ability to offer a genuine home/office experience to individual passengers, regardless of the quality of service on the ground. With technology continuing to advance, the gap between expectation and delivery is narrowing.

Bryan Wiltse, Boeing’s Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity Strategy Lead, says the OEM works hard to keep pace. “Boeing is constantly evaluating technology and working with expert suppliers in the connectivity space to provide the most current systems available.

We work through rigorous evaluation processes to ensure the technology is safe and ready for introduction on a commercial airplane, while the focus on industry standards and standardised installation allows for easier upgrades as technology evolves.”

And, he agrees: “The consumer electronics industry very much drives what we’ll see next in airborne wifi and connectivity. Passengers and airlines will expect the next device, experience or functionality to work in the air as it does on the ground. This will drive future functionality within the connected airplane.”

Alexis Hickox, Head of Global Business Development, Cabin Solutions at Collins Aerospace, has worldwide responsibility for the company’s cabin connectivity business, primarily from the passenger perspective. She says several elements are responsible for delivering a great wifi passenger experience, including the right broadband network: “We use Inmarsat’s GX aviation network, which is perhaps the highest performing available today.


Passengers are particularly annoyed by ‘black spots’ between satellites, or their connection dropping off because of patchy satellite networks, put together using capacity provided by different operators. GX is provided by one party, with satellite coverage from overlapping beams, plus spot beams that can be directed at busy areas, delivering a seamless internet experience.”

When airlines wirelessly stream content only from onboard servers, satellite connectivity is irrelevant to wifi efficiency, but when internet connection is offered, wifi becomes only the conduit through which poor quality service is delivered to a passenger device – continuously needing to log back on very quickly becomes ‘extremely onerous’, Hickox says.


Meanwhile, the process of creating a ‘connected airplane’ is changing. Many airlines are continuing to upgrade aircraft fleets for satcom and wifi connectivity, while new-build airliners are increasingly delivered either equipped with IFEC suites, or provisioned ready to accept them with minimal modification. In fact, the process of installing cabin wifi, streaming IFE and/or satcom connectivity is perhaps less demanding than expected.

Wiltse notes: “All Boeing’s production airplanes are capable of accepting wifi system installations, although they remain a customer choice, and airlines must select them for installation. Post-production installations can be purchased through Boeing Global Services.

“The difference between a production and retrofit installation is minimal. Regardless, installations include the same system hardware – broadband satellite antenna and subsystem, file server and wireless access points. The differences, if any, will typically be in the system wiring and equipment location. We provide post-production support, while Boeing Global Services supports airline requests for connectivity.”

Considering the work required to engineer an aircraft for wifi, Wiltse reports: “Boeing has not made any specific airplane design or material changes to support wifi systems, but we have completed extensive airplane-level testing to determine the most advantageous equipment installation locations to maximise wireless coverage within the airplane. These optimised installation locations allow for the best possible aircraft wifi environment for the passengers and crew.”

Collins Aerospace’s Hickox explains the essential architecture of a cabin wifi network. “A wireless LAN infrastructure, capable of supporting multiple user sessions simultaneously, is required. Collins Aerospace uses a Miltope offering, which we’ve integrated into our overall solution. It means each wireless access point [WAP] can support around 60 high-definition streams concurrently, plus 255 IP addresses. On a narrowbody we’d usually install four WAPs, and five on a widebody, providing coverage for 240 passengers concurrently on the narrowbody and 300 on the widebody.

“Looking at a Collins Aerospace solution from a hardware perspective, it first requires the satellite hardware, comprising a modman, Ka-band aircraft network data unit [KANDU], radio frequency unit, antenna and radome. In the cabin, the wireless hub is a gateway server, linked to the WAPs with cabling.” Collins Aerospace focuses on providing connectivity through its wireless IFE, but Hickox says the wifi architecture for a ‘simple’ streaming system linked only to an onboard server, would essentially be identical.

Considering the cabin as a wifi environment, Hickox reckons delivering good coverage is really relatively simple, a statement that may surprise those of us whose phones pick up their home router 100ft away in the garden, but fail to see it from the adjacent room. “The aircraft cabin isn’t a difficult environment for wifi. And, using high-performing WAPs that cover a considerable range, we can create separate SSIDs, creating discrete VPN networks for the crew and passengers. Neither interferes with the other and they’re securely managed.”

Cybersecurity ought to be a major concern in just about every aspect of our day-to-day lives, including when we connect to a wifi network and onto the internet during a flight. Collins Aerospace manages individual passenger security from the ground, via a system employing Sandvine cybersecurity software. “It manages the network, helping optimise the passenger experience and providing tools, including TCP accelerators, to ensure data is protected. Our service is PCI compliant, so all data is also protected according to local rules and regulations.”

Hickox mentions Collins Aerospace’s ground infrastructure frequently, and it’s clearly a key component in delivering its IFE and communications offering, right down to the wifi that connects passenger devices via WAP to the server and onto broadband. What does the infrastructure look like? “We integrate into Inmarsat’s network and we have New York and London as our primary ‘meet me’ points. They integrate into our ‘private’ global network, which is able to route data back to airline headquarters, for example. We also have our own data centres and capability to interface into airline networks.” >>

 


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