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Guest Post: In-flight broadband for Europe: The final countdown?

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Guest Post: In-flight broadband for Europe: The final countdown?

Consumers are hungry for a connected experience, says Kate Green, director of Strategy and Business Development, Commercial Aviation, Viasat

The in-flight internet market is reaching a tipping point. Previously, the best internet connection passengers could hope for would allow them to check their emails and maybe browse low-content web pages. Now passengers in America are enjoying services that are the same, or better, than what they receive at home. Consumer awareness of in-flight internet is fueling greater demand for these services and there will come a time when passengers can live their life, uninterrupted– whether checking flight times or bank balances.

Connecting flights

It should be no surprise that more bandwidth will be needed to support a growing number of devices and digital services, all of which offer a higher-quality, data-intensive experience. This is backed by research which indicates annual internet traffic will reach 21 GB per capita by 2020, up from 7 GB per capita in 2015. Consumers expect to be connected all the time; an expectation that stays the same whether in the air or in the office. In this context, a three hour flight without sufficient connectivity will seem like a lifetime.

In Europe there are some airlines that have recently signed up for new in-flight connectivity services because they see the trend of giving an on the ground experience to passengers in the air. Airlines like SAS, Finnair, Icelandair and EL AL Israel Airlines have all recently partnered with Viasat, who is recognized as being the ‘best Wi-Fi in the sky’ by third parties, mostly due to the Company having the world’s highest-capacity, fastest in-flight internet service.

These airlines understand the value of offering in-flight connectivity to their passengers, while others, big and small, are still contemplating Wi-Fi’s role in the cabin. In fact, according to Rethink Research, just 15% of European flights have Wi-Fi connectivity. In comparison, the top five biggest airlines in North America all offer in-flight connectivity. So why has in-flight internet taken off in America, but not in Europe?

Experiencing Member State turbulence

One of the biggest obstacles preventing European airlines from adopting in-flight internet as quickly as their American counterparts, is the sheer diversity of the continent. Rather than a single nation spanning the continent from coast-to-coast, with overall control over all airspace and available spectrum for broadband capacity, Europe has 51 independent states; each with its own available spectrum and designs on how to allocate it. While the EU and international treaties have addressed this to some extent, the picture is still far more complex than in the U.S.

To combat the lack of network uniformity across Europe, airlines need to look at technologies that can provide an uninterrupted service. In America high-capacity satellites and more integrated networks have led to superfast in-flight internet. But despite steady uptake, satellite is still seen as a second tier method of delivering connectivity in Europe. However, by the early 2020s, high-capacity satellites that communicate to pan-European satellite ground networks will be able to provide 100 Mbps broadband speeds to anywhere in the world; meaning that airlines can potentially provide an uninterrupted, high-quality service across every continent.

Partnership, rather than time, is of the essence

Another unique challenge European airlines face is the length of the flights themselves. In the U.S. or Canada, coast-to-coast flights of five plus hours are common. Conversely, in Europe, flights will often be a short hop of an hour or less. Therefore how European airlines show the value of in-flight internet may be different than their U.S. counterparts; however, European airlines can take a page from U.S. airline books – and look to partnerships to add value.

For instance, in the U.S., brands from hotel chains to online media services like Spotify, Netflix and Amazon Prime, partner direct with airlines to sponsor the in-flight internet. With a captive passenger audience—regardless of flight time gate-to-gate—airlines can offer a benefit, and brands get a potentially lucrative opportunity to increase loyalty from existing customers or introduce their products and services to new customers. Considering airlines welcomed more than 3.9 billion passengers in 2017, the potential audience for such partners is huge. Having in-flight internet on the plane, can become one of the more important advertising platforms for brands in the coming years.

Cleared for take-off

The technology to provide seamless in-flight internet, of the same quality as people expect in their homes and offices, is becoming more evident in Europe. Consumers are hungry for a connected experience, ensuring a life, uninterrupted, and airlines are hungry for highly-satisfied customers. It’s now up to the airlines to believe and understand in the value in-flight internet can deliver—whether direct or through integrated marketing partnerships with brands.

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