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Handheld devices are a central part of Panasonic Aviation’s entertainment strategy.

Clamoring for a connection

Many of today’s constantly connected consumers balk at spending a few hours without Web access. Commercials airlines are responding by forging links with satellite providers that give flyers the same capabilities they have on the ground. Increasing bandwidth is one of the focal points for inflight entertainment and connectivity (IEFC) systems.

“High throughput satellites (HTS) are going to be launched in early 2016, which will make exponentially more capacity available,” said Panasonic Avionics Corp. spokesman Brian Bardwell. “Layering these HTS spot beams over our existing wide-beam network ensures both global coverage and the greatest throughput. Our wide-beam network today covers 99.6% of all commercial flight hours, offering up to 50 Mbps. HTS capacity that will bring 200 Mbps, as well as extremely high throughput capacity, that will bring up to 3.3 Gbps in certain regions.”

Panasonic’s satellite partner, Intelsat, currently estimates that its global broadband aeronautical throughput is 350 Mbps. That’s expanding rapidly now that newly launched Intelsat’s EpicNG satellites each add 25-60 Gbps of capacity. They offer both wide and spot beams, enabling intelligent use of spectrum to provide as much as 200 Mbps to a plane flying through any given beam.

Other airline and satellite partners are making similar moves. Jazeera Airways plans to install Rockwell Collins’ PAVES Cabin Wireless and Inmarsat’s Global Xpress connectivity on its Airbus A320 aircraft by late 2016. That will let more than 500 passengers stream video content simultaneously while also using an array of apps and services.

“Inmarsat’s Global Xpress constellation is set to transform the passenger experience. Airlines can offer inflight connectivity that is fast, reliable and consistent, with coverage across the world,” said Leo Mondale, President of Inmarsat Aviation.

Inmarsat also equipped more than 150 Lufthansa planes with its Global Xpress commercial Ka-band satellite network. Lufthansa plans to continue this rise in bandwidth.

“To keep up with the new Ka satellite technology, the Ku system used for the airlines will be upgraded to high-throughput satellites, and at a later stage to extreme high-throughput satellites,” said Sabine Hierschbiel, Connectivity & IFE Systems Manager at Lufthansa. “This will improve performance, providing much more bandwidth to the individual user.”

Passengers will readily ask for more bandwidth, but airlines and satellite providers have to figure out how to provide it profitably. At some point, consumers and providers alike will determine that they’re no longer willing to continue the upward spiral. Airlines may be the ones to tell consumers that their usage will have some limits.

“All this has a natural end, either technology-wise or in an economical aspect,” Hierschbiel said. “So it will be interesting to see how long the industry is willing to continue this growth, or if at some time the industry will set parameters to the kind of usage being offered inflight.”

Security will be a key factor regardless of how much bandwidth is used. Connectivity always brings the downside of the Internet: hackers and malware. A hacker who figures out how to take control of a plane could extort huge sums.

System designers block attacks through the IFEC systems by isolating aircraft control systems from the information systems used by passengers and crew. That prevents a hacker or a problematic app from causing problems with flight controls. Airlines are also ensuring that their IFEC systems aren’t compromised.

“We only use the latest IT security mechanisms to ensure the data transferred over the connectivity system cannot be manipulated,” Hierschbiel said. “This includes end-to-end encryption, use of certificates, hardening of connected devices, and the enforcement of strong passwords. Security analyses and audits are performed and continuously repeated. Additionally, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and authorities are working together on regulation and processes to avoid the possibility of interference with any operational aircraft interface.”

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