Connectivity is central to the delivery of services within the airport or onboard the aircraft.
The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has resulted in an explosion of new services and information that was not possible just a few years ago.
The focus until recently was on connecting people. But with the march of IoT we are now connecting people and a myriad of objects around us.
In today’s world we can be connected to our car and home. Connectivity has revolutionized the world around us, delivering new services and opening up new business opportunities. Just think Uber.
In the air transport industry, IoT has allowed passengers to become connected to the airport while the connected aircraft has enabled the exchange of vital flight information between ground and air.
However, all of this relies on affordable good quality connectivity. And at the same time, the imminent arrival of billions of tiny smart devices demands ultra low-cost and ubiquitous data transmission.
For passengers, affordable connectivity is expected. “One of the chief concerns a traveler has when they leave their home or office is how can they stay connected to their personal and work life during their journey,” says Gene Quinn, CEO and Founder of Tnooz.
“They have come to expect connectivity through Wi-Fi or low-cost telecommunication services throughout their travels. It is no longer negotiable.
Connectivity is the most central and pivotal part of the passenger experience.
“Low connectivity is also central to the delivery of services within the airport or onboard the aircraft, whether accessing information on the whereabouts of your baggage or the details of your next flight. Connectivity is the most central and pivotal part of the passenger experience.”
For airlines and airports, connectivity is also the vital link that allows they to take advantage of the benefits that IoT brings to the industry.
“There’s talk about connectivity being free. Maybe we'll get there one day but basically what we now need is radically lower cost connectivity,” says Stuart Lodge, EVP, Global Sales & Partners, SIGFOX which has set about creating its own low-cost and dedicated IoT network.
All this demand for connectivity has placed huge pressure on traditional networks around the world.
“With the massive explosion in the usage of the Internet of Things, companies or industries are changing their business models,” says Pierre-Louis Biaggi, VP, Connectivity Business Unit, Orange Business Services.
“In the retail sector we have chains which are opening stores with a full digital experience, merging the experience you have in the shop and the experience you have on the internet.”
“This ballooning of demand is putting tremendous pressure on the network and the bandwidth requirement. It is also challenging our budgets.
“We are having to ask ourselves how do we manage our budget in order to cope with this demand yet deliver the performance that our users are requesting in terms of quality, reliability and security?” asks Biaggi.
An added constraint for the air transport is the complexity of this connectivity.
“Our industry has a very specific requirement. Let me take the example of the aircraft connectivity,” says Sebastien Fabre, VP Integrated Networks Business Line, SITA.
“The fact is that an aircraft at the gate can now connect to refresh its inflight entertainment content, load new flight plans or download maintenance records.
“But to provide this connectivity is not easy to achieve, with different systems and requirements.”
The answer to providing low-cost connectivity lies in allowing for greater flexibility, delivering connectivity when needed and bandwidth when required.
“In order to manage this disparity between with high bandwidth requirements from hungry applications, cost control and performance, operators like ourselves are providing hybrid network solutions,” says Biaggi.
These combine the best of internet and MPLS plus additional services such as security, application performance and acceleration in order to make sure that any application takes the best network at the time it requires it.
“In the future, our customers will only see one network and the distinction between public and private will become irrelevant.”
Fabre also argues that standardization is key to affordability.
“When I look at the communication infrastructure landscape, it looks very much like a jungle,” say Fabre.
“And a jungle that is proliferating very quickly and becoming increasingly tangled. Every time we launch a new technology we are not removing the old one.
“We are hoarding. Stacking up. As result you have got systems and applications all requiring different types of technology and different access methods, all with their own dedicated infrastructure.”
And all this for relatively low volumes. “There are only a few thousand aircraft flying today. So how can you be very low cost, if not free of charge, when your connectivity requirement is extremely complex yet at low volume?” he asks.
Every technology requires a different infrastructure, and we have to implement it at the airport which is not the easiest environment. We need to rethink the way we deal with connectivity and I believe the solution is standardizing.
“Every technology requires a different infrastructure, and we have to implement it at the airport which is not the easiest environment. We need to rethink the way we deal with connectivity and I believe the solution is standardizing.”
Fabre believes that setting industry standards for everything from security to availability, the industry could invest in one infrastructure that serves the entire community, helping drive down cost.
SIGFOX’s Lodge believes IoT has prompted the need for a new network that is fit for purpose.
“The reason we're talking about low cost is that the technologies we use today are not great for connecting other things. Those other things, be it baggage or aircraft, have a different set of requirements which need to be met.
“The first requirement for IoT connectivity and the devices that power them is that they need to be low power,” adds Lodge.
“Most of these devices attached to objects will not have a power supply, and therefore they need to be battery operated. And they need to have a lifetime of five, ten years for them to be economically viable.”
The second requirement is they need to be low cost.
“Third, connectivity also needs to be all-pervasive, so that people can just use and connect objects, without necessarily getting involved in the deployment and the infrastructure that allows that connectivity. You need to have something that's available globally.”
“And the last one, which is very important, it needs to be simple. It needs to work. It needs to work out of the box. And it needs to be easy to develop and deploy solutions.”
While there is no one solution, the air transport industry will continue to drive demand for low-cost connectivity.
It’s a challenge that will force a major change in the way connectivity has been delivered over the next few years, becoming – if not already – the most vital infrastructure needed for modern aviation.