The Big Interview

Connections in the sky

Gareth Willmer

23 May 2018

How essential is it to get Europe’s short-haul airline passengers connected?

I think it is getting more and more important, because there is a rising expectation from customers that they always want to be best connected. It is a developing market that has very solid growth prospects. The airline market in the EU alone carried about 1 billion passengers in 2016, and the number is still growing by around 5% every year.

What are a carrier’s most important considerations for an in-flight broadband service?

While robust infrastructure is obviously important, making it a great user experience for the passenger is actually what will make this successful. You can have the best network in the world, but if people can’t easily access it you have an issue.

Also, flight times within the EU are very short when compared to long-haul journeys. The average flight here is about 60-70 minutes long, so it’s important that you get the passenger online as quickly and painlessly as possible.

What is Deutsche Telekom’s aim with its EAN service and how innovative is it?

We already connect people at home and on the go, and building the European Aviation Network with our partner Inmarsat has essentially closed the last gap for our customers. It is the world’s first fully integrated S-band satellite and complementary LTE ground network that is thoroughly dedicated to aviation. It’s also effectively the first mobile network that covers the whole of the EU, with a satellite and around 300 LTE base stations across the 28 member states, plus Switzerland and Norway. With this, we’re bringing the user experience to aircraft that passengers are used to getting at home, so it’s really the first true home broadband experience in the sky. We’re delivering a high-bandwidth passenger service of up to 75Mbps to the aircraft, as airlines using the service do not share network capacity with other non-aviation customers. The network can also easily be scaled by adding capacity to the antenna masts or putting up another tower.

What are the launch plans for the service?

Last summer, Inmarsat launched the EAN’s S-band satellite – and Deutsche Telekom announced the completion of the LTE network in February. From a network-readiness perspective, the team is good to go and is already talking to all single-aisle, short-haul operators in Europe. The first customer is already installing and testing equipment in its aircraft.

How are you seeking to get customers connected quickly?

We’re optimising the portal where passengers can buy WiFi passes – but I believe that the real growth potential lies in building carrier relations. DT is striking deals to open the footprint to customers of other operators by enabling them to use the in-flight service and have the service charged to their mobile phone bill. 

The traditional way of selling WiFi on board is through a portal that has a selection of passes and you have to put your credit card details in, meaning it takes perseverance to get online and puts a glass ceiling on take-up. But if you’re a carrier customer, we make it very easy. 

We already have 20 million subscribers that can log on at the click of a button, for example through an app provided by their service provider.

What extra benefits does this bring to airlines themselves?

If you can get customers online faster, then it adds a whole new bouquet of opportunities because there is a lot you can do with regard to customer interaction on a connected aircraft. There are also many potential efficiencies – for example, if you could get more details and weather information than with just radar, an optimised flight path brings down the airline’s fuel bill. Having the aircraft connected “nose to tail” offers both monetisation opportunities and operational benefits.

How exciting is the future for broadband on aeroplanes?

I see a future in which connectivity is completely seamless – meaning there’s no difference between using the internet on the ground or up in the air. At the moment, connectivity services in the air are something special added on as a premium proposition – but inevitably, they will make their way into standard subscriber bundles. Working with other telcos in the industry is key to homogenising this and making it as easy as possible for subscribers.