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Streaming In The Sky

“TV everywhere” is now available in the clouds. Literally.

While U.S. airlines may be cutting back on snacks and free checked bags, there’s one service most are going overboard to deliver: streaming TV entertainment.

Like never before, airlines are launching videostreaming services that use WiFi to deliver major network-TV programming to passengers’ smartphones, tablets and laptops.

This “bring your own device,” or BYOD, model is allowing passengers access to in-flight entertainment on planes that didn’t have it before, and in many cases augmenting existing TV services with on-demand content. And it often provides a higher-quality viewing experience than a passenger would get with an aging, low-resolution seat-back display.

The new wireless streaming services are also being rolled out in lockstep with high-speed Internet access by some international carriers that are just introducing connectivity to their fleets.

Southwest Airlines, for example, has offered a 20-channel live-TV streaming service since mid-2013, available free on passenger devices. Delta Air Lines, which already offers live satellite TV on seat-back displays in many of its large jets, last summer launched free streaming video to passenger-owned devices on smaller regional jets through its “Delta Studio” service.

United Airlines announced in October that it will roll out a similar on-demand streaming service on 200 smaller regional jets through next year. JetBlue Airways in November introduced WiFi-enabled streaming video through its “Fly-Fi Hub” service with on-demand shows from Fox and National Geographic Channel. And both Alaska Airlines and Canadian lowcost carrier WestJet Airlines are rolling out new videostreaming services.

While airlines continue to invest in seat-back displays, particularly for large planes making long flights, streaming video to personal devices is now seen as being good enough to serve as the sole entertainment offering on some flights.

And in-flight streaming on jets is expected to grow as more planes add WiFi connectivity to allow passengers to access the Internet and check email in-flight — while at the same time generating ancillary revenues for the airlines.

“With all of our newer domestic narrow-bodies, we’re looking at personal device entertainment as the primary IFE [in-flight entertainment] option,” Tarek Abdel- Halim, managing director of passenger systems at United, said.

Airline executives said the personal-device model can result in a better viewing experience for passengers. Consumers tend to buy new smartphones or tablets every two years or so; Abdel-Halim said a seat-back screen may be used for 10 to 12 years before being replaced and tends to show wear and tear.

“It’s a more private experience for the passenger, and they’re comfortable with the UI [user interface]; they know how to navigate their own device,” Abdel-Halim said. “So we can have a really premium viewing experience by leveraging the on-board server, which holds a lot of content.” United offers more than 400 free TV movies and TV shows with its streaming service.

“We reach content deals with the studios and try to tailor the offering around our own viewing habits,” he said. “Today, it’s far more of an on-demand world — I want to watch what I want to watch, when I want to watch it.”

Seat-back TV displays have been around since the late 1980s and are a common feature on wide-body jets. JetBlue first launched DirecTV satellite TV on its planes back in 2000.

But in-flight WiFi is still a relatively new amenity. It is only found on around 3,500 commercial planes at present, with the vast majority in North America.

Analysts estimate that more than 12,000 commercial planes globally have yet to add Internet connectivity, and that the connectivity market itself could eventually grow to more than $2 billion in annual revenues.

“The business is changing pretty dramatically and growing,” said Dave Davis, CEO of Global Eagle Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based firm that licenses in-flight content, makes video-streaming software and provides satellite connectivity to Southwest and a number of international airlines.

While Global Eagle currently licenses content for seat-back displays in more than 4,000 planes, its Internet- connectivity systems are only installed on around 615 planes; 500 of those aircraft also offer streaming video to personal devices. Davis noted that Global Eagle also provides streaming software to airlines using other connectivity vendors, such as Philippines Airlines, which offers streaming video as the primary in-flight entertainment on its wide-body Airbus A-330 jets.

Myriad players serve the in-flight entertainment (IFE) and connectivity markets, including manufacturers of embedded seat-back displays, content service providers (CSPs) who serve as middlemen between programmers and airlines, and providers of connectivity via satellite or terrestrial links.

Most have their foot in the door of the nascent in-flight streaming market. Some of the biggest players include GoGo, an Itaska, Ill.-based company which leads the in-flight connectivity market with over 2,000 planes installed; Global Eagle, which counts media veterans Jeff Sagansky and Harry Sloan as major investors; and ViaSat, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company which provides high-speed Internet connectivity via Ka-band satellite to JetBlue’s fleet as well as some United planes.

Besides making TV shows and movies available on more flights, streaming should also lower the cost of delivering that programming for airlines. One of the biggest benefits of BYOD in-flight TV to airlines is that it eliminates seat-back display systems and their associated wiring and under-seat boxes. That means significant weight savings, and thus lower fuel costs. Streaming also means lower maintenance costs than embedded displays, which usually can’t be fixed without parking the plane.

The BYOD model also allows passengers to take advantage of connected devices that they are bringing aboard anyway and which often provide a larger, higher-quality display that conventional seat-back systems.

“As airlines look to increase their profit margins, one of the biggest things they do is look at the cost of fuel and the weight of plane,” Elliot Wagner, vice president of international program sales and North America partnerships for Discovery Communications, said. “With streaming, you could theoretically get rid of 90% of the weight of your content system. So we are more than happy to work with these airlines to help them do that.”

As long as airlines and in-flight content service providers deliver the same level of digital rights management [DRM] that Discovery is used to on the ground, said Wagner, the programmer has no problem with streaming in an airline’s cabin.

“As a passenger, I think it’s great,” he added. “I’m bringing my iPad onboard regardless, and in most cases, it’s a better display [than the seat-back model].”

To be sure, streaming video to personal devices at 35,000 feet isn’t exactly the same as doing it on the street or in your living room. While the service is delivered via WiFi, the streaming content delivered within a plane represents more of a “walled garden” than all of the video delivered through the Internet. This is due both to bandwidth constraints and rights issues. As a result, typical “TV everywhere” content that can usually be watched via the Internet on authenticated devices might not always be available in the air.

Piper Jaffray analyst James Marsh, who covers Global Eagle, notes that most in-flight connectivity providers won’t let you access Netflix or other popular streaming sites today.

“Up to now, it’s more of a capacity issue and less of a rights issue,” Marsh said. “Most connectivity players won’t let you stream.”

As in-air bandwidth is expensive, most airlines are focused on using streaming to deliver on-demand movies from onboard servers preloaded with content. GoGo’s streaming product, GoGo Vision, is a good example. Launched in 2011 as a cost-effective add-on to GoGo’s existing WiFi connectivity services, the service is now on more than 1,600 commercial planes, many of which are already equipped with traditional seat-back displays or overhead monitors. GoGo Vision runs off onboard servers stocked with more than 100 movies and TV shows, and can be found anywhere from on regional jets up to large aircraft, where it is often an add-on service to traditional seatback TV.

GoGo Vision is used by most of GoGo’s major U.S. connectivity customers including Delta, American and United, as well as Japan Airlines for domestic flights, and is generally offered under the airline’s branding.

“When we launched connectivity in 2008, we knew there was interest from leisure travelers in watching movies and streaming video through the Internet, but the capacity wasn’t there when we launched,” GoGo spokesman Steve Nolan said. “So we created a product to allow customers to rent movies where it’s not such a bandwidth issue. That was the genesis of it.”

While GoGo hasn’t disclosed the cost of adding connectivity to a plane (analysts peg the cost of terrestrial connectivity at around $100,000 per plane, with satellite connectivity costing two to three times as much), Nolan said that adding GoGo Vision requires only a small incremental investment.

Besides installing a special antenna to receive ground-to-air data, providing connectivity on a plane is similar to installing a Wi-Fi system in a house, Nolan said. Needed equipment includes an onboard server, modem and several wireless access points (WAPs). Movies and TV shows are loaded onto the server while the plane is on the ground through a universal serial bus-based content loading system.

GoGo Vision content is generally offered on a pay-per- view basis, with TV shows selling for $1 and movies for $5.99. (Movies tend to be offered in the same window as DVDs for wireless streaming, not the “early window” that seat-back fare enjoys, though some smaller studios like Magnolia Pictures do offer movies in the early window.) Some airlines offer free fare.

Streaming won’t take over right away — airlines still have plans to improve embedded seatback displays (see sidebar, page 15), which often accompany power outlets for long flights. But even leading seatback vendors like Panasonic Avionics and Thales now have streaming products.

Thales, which provides a variety of technology for the aviation industry including navigation, communication and instrumentation systems, is along with Panasonic Avionics one of the two big vendors of embeddded seatback displays and already counts more than 75 airlines as customers.

In June it bought JetBlue’s LiveTV unit, which provides the live DirecTV seatback service to both JetBlue and United, to bolster its connectivity business.

The French conglomerate is now branching into wireless, in-flight entertainment with Middle Eastern airline Saudia, which is currently installing serverbased Thales systems that will stream on-demand video to passenger devices. Thales is also a partner of GoGo, which is working to improve its connectivity products for both the U.S. and the international markets.

In-Flight HD: Takeoff Still Delayed

While the hottest technology trend in in-flight entertainment may be streaming video to portable devices, that doesn’t mean that airlines are giving up on seat-back displays.

In fact, at the same time Delta announced its new BYOD [bring your own device] streaming service for regional jets last summer, the carrier touted its continued investment in seat-back entertainment. Delta said it would upgrade some 156 domestic narrow-body aircraft with seat-back displays through 2016, adding to the 140 domestic planes already with them. More than 100 new Airbus and Boeing planes are set to be delivered with seat-back displays through 2018, Delta also said.

“Especially for longer-haul planes, such as international routes, there’s always going to be a place for seatback solutions that also provide power as well,” GoGo spokesman Steve Nolan, whose company provides Delta’s streaming service, said. “But the trend is also moving away from that, as there are operational advantages to offering a [streaming] service to passengers who already have a device in their hands. We know from our research that a lot of people walk onto a plane with a WiFi device.”

One way that seat-back displays can stay relevant with passengers is by improving their resolution. Large airlines typically have a long refresh cycle for their IFE displays, as much as 10 to 12 years. So most units today are 480-line progressive standard definition, which pale in comparison to the high-definition displays featured in many of today’s smartphones, tablets and laptops and represent a fraction of the 4K resolution offered by the latest HD consumer sets.

“We have to get to the next generation of monitor, which is 1080p,” Tarek Abdel-Halim, United managing director of passenger systems, said. “The refresh rate of personal devices is always going to be faster, and allow the latest, greatest screen technology to come to PDE [personal-device entertainment].”

In the near term, wireless streaming to personal devices is probably the easiest way to provide HD content in-flight, Elliot Wagner, vice president of international program sales and North America partnerships for Discovery Communications, said.

“If we are able to send a deliverable encoded as an HD fi le, and have it displayed back on a Retina Display on an iPad, that would be ideal,” Wagner said.

One in-flight vendor that remains firmly committed to seat-back displays is Irvine, Calif.-based Lumexis, which said it has taken most of the weight out of the seat-back experience with a new architecture called FTTS, or fiber to the seat. Lumexis’s approach is to run embedded fiber-optic cables directly to each seatback display from a central server, forgoing any terminal units under the seat.

The company uses LED-backlit liquid crystal displays, with smaller economy and business class units (10.1-, 12.1- and 15.2-inch) at 720p resolution and larger (23-inch) first-class units at 1080p. Lumexis VP of sales Jon Norris said the system runs at 40% of the weight of a typical legacy in-seat system.

What’s On-Air Up There

Here’s a sampling of what’s available on a few of the biggest U.S. airlines:

United Airlines

The airline is now rolling out GoGo Vision on 200 two-cabin United Express regional jets, with installation scheduled to be complete by next summer.

By the end of this year, all of United’s domestic planes are scheduled to offer WiFi, plus either seat-back DirecTV service or wireless streaming to personal devices, including iOS and Android devices accessible through United’s mobile app, as well as laptop computers. Close to 200 planes already offer streaming.

While most of its narrow-body fleet has seat-back DirecTV, United’s latest deliveries of 737s do not have seat-back displays. Instead, they are being installed with WiFi connectivity, then streaming video.

United’s streaming service is complimentary, as the airline is using an ad-sponsored approach for personal device entertainment with the Chase Mileage Plus Card as the current sponsor. United managing director of passenger systems Tarek Abdel-Halim said United still characterizes streaming as a beta product and hasn’t aggressively marketed the service. He didn’t provide detailed metrics on usage, but so far United has seen “good uptake,” he said, particularly on the Boeing 777s making long flights across the Pacific.

“Though it’s very early stages, from a domestic fleet point of view, I can’t envision a scenario where we go back to wired seat-back entertainment based on the initial response to PDE [personal device entertainment],” he said.

As the streaming service becomes more commonplace, United plans to ramp up its marketing, and to make connecting to United WiFi and loading up the in-flight portal “look very similar and have common capabilities” across different aircraft , Abdel-Halim added.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest, which introduced on-demand streaming content on its Boeing 737s in February 2013, five months later launched “TV Flies Free,” a 20- channel live TV service sponsored by Dish Network and viewable for free on customer-owned WiFi-capable devices. (Dish’s sponsorship ran through 2014, and the service is now sponsored by Chase and called “Free Live TV Compliments of the Rapid Rewards Credit Card.”) Streaming video is the only form of in-flight entertainment that price-conscious Southwest offers.

While 80% of Southwest’s fleet has Wi-Fi connectivity today, its Boeing 737s had neither Internet access nor in-flight entertainment just five years ago. The satellite-based connectivity system from Global Eagle/ Row 44 uses a Ku-band satellite connection to deliver live video in a “dedicated pipe” alongside Internet data.

The “Free Live TV” lineup includes CNBC, MSNBC, NBC, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Channel, Fox, Fox Sports 1, NFL Network, MLB.com, Golf Channel, Bravo, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, TLC, HGTV, Food Network, CBS, Cartoon Network, Discovery Channel and a promotional channel. During football season, NFL Network Red Zone is also available on an a la carte basis for an additional $4.

“TV Flies Free is available gate-to-gate and doesn’t require users to download an app beforehand, which is how most other airlines offer streaming video. The service is simply accessed through a Web browser, though passengers need to provide their email for marketing purposes before they get to watch TV.

While watching live TV through WiFi is free, using WiFi to access the Internet or send email costs $8 per day. Southwest also offers on-demand movies for $5 per title, and smartphone users can enjoy IP-based messaging (either Apple’s iMessage or the platform-agnostic WhatsApp) for $2 per day.

Delta Air Lines

Delta uses a seat-selection technology to give passengers access to a range of free streaming content from GoGo Vision based on the class of ticket a passenger has; the pricier the ticket, the more free content is available.

“It asks you your name and where you’re sitting on the plane, and it serves up content based on where you are,” said GoGo spokesman Steve Nolan of the airborne authentication system. “The further up you are in the plane, the more likely you are to have everything free.”

To use GoGo’s straight connectivity product to surf the Web or check email, passengers must pay standard connectivity fees, which start at $16 for an all-day pass when bought on the ground (and potentially run much higher or lower when bought on-board, depending on the length of the flight).