Tuesday, September 25, 2018

APEX 2018 Midway Report

APEX EXPO 2018 got started a day earlier than I expected.  My report from the first two days looking at VR headsets, satcom partnerships and agreements, seeking profit, and emerging technology.

VR on Alaska Airlines

My flight from Seattle to Boston to attend the 2018 APEX EXPO on Alaska Airlines turned into a flying lab. It was quite a surprise to see David Scotland pass me on his way to the first class cabin toting a small suitcase. As I peered through the blocking screen, I watched as David offered the premium passengers a chance to try out the Skylights VR headset.

David was kind enough to offer me a chance to try them out too. I ended up watching a whole 3D movie.

The user interface is simplified. The content is stored on the device. 

I guess I was a bit hot when I first started watching, as the lenses fogged up and I had to take them off a few times to wipe them clear. 

While there are ample adjustments, I was not able to align them so that each eye saw a full rectangular screen; one side was scalloped out of view. I fiddled with the alignment throughout the viewing (up/down, narrow/wide, tight/loose) but overall it was comfortable. 

I was not fatigued after nearly two hours of use.  

The video quality was very good, with the only artifact I saw relating to granularity in the color pallette. There is a dark area below the screen, in the viewer. Some light leaked in, but that was not an issue. I could convince myself I was in a big theatre, and imagined rows of seats in that dark area. 

While the noise cancellation was fine, of course some cabin noise is present, and I found myself distracted from my "bubble" a bit. After about an hour I started to have this nagging feeling that I needed to take the headset off. Not claustrophobic, more general anxiety. It was very mild, and I never stopped the viewing to take a break.

I have been waiting for this immersive technology for many years, and overall I was happy with it.  I did not try any virtual reality. The 3D effects were great. I have to say, though, that I don't have an issue watching a title on my iPad (3D not withstanding.)  I am confident that these products are only going to get better.  For now, it still seems a bit clumsy, with both an audio headset and a video headset to manage.

Parade of the CEO

As a credit to Joe Leader, the morning of APEX Educational Sessions was all about Airline CEOs. It was fun to hear the executives express their views on IFEC, each of which focused on what IFE means to the passenger experience.  These CEOs are data driven (Net Promoter Score, NPS), they watch how their airline is graded very carefully. The business cases presented were less about return-on-investment (ROI) in dollars and more about increasing NPS (from which the dollars will follow.)

Stephen Kavanagh, Aer Lingus, announced a plan to offer every passenger at least 20 MB of free data.  20 MB of data is a useful bucket, if you can be sure to consume it surgically with a smartphone or a tablet, by limiting the apps that are active.  I suspect many people will quickly consume their bucket, and hopefully most will be happy for the amenity. A laptop is going to eat that up in the blink of an eye.

If anyone can get more than 10% of the passengers (guests) to buy Wi-Fi, it is probably Robert Fornoro and Spirit Airlines. The Thales-managed network launch customer derives nearly half their revenue from ancillary revenues.  

Other reports suggest Spirit earns even a higher percent of revenues from ancillary.

As much of their proposition is already ala carte, adding Wi-Fi into the mix could be a breakthrough.  Pre-flight sales are nothing new, yet I feel Robert is going to show us all a few new tricks.

Of course I am no typical APEX EXPO participant; I cannot judge what everyone took away from these executives.  For myself, while it was fun to hear the presentations from these leaders, I personally longed to move the presentation down a level to the VP and Directors that wrestle with the various IFEC propositions and have to make hard decisions with whom they want to partner, and what they want to do.  It is at these intermediate layers where I think the most relevant and informed insights would emerge.

Measuring Wi-Fi Satisfaction

Stephan Schulte presented a briefing on the working group that is developing a metric to gage a Wi-Fi connectivity session.  Airlines want an easy means to measure Internet access services as part of service-level agreement to the service provider, and for insight into passenger satisfaction.  

There is no Internet service that operates in pure isolation, in a consistent manner, as all services are shared amongst multiple users and applications, and can frequently become congested. A user is somewhat powerless to control what everyone else is doing on the same "channel." Satellite service suffers some variation across each beam, and with other factors having to do with airplane position relative to the satellite. 

Forward channel data rates are provisioned independently from the Return channel. Aero terminals are inherently limited in Return channel data rates, whereas the forward channel can be scaled without regard. As such, performance may be impacted by congestion on the Return channel, while the Forward channel is unhindered.  

There is no single measure that reflects an Internet Experience. It will ebb and flow throughout. A composite score could reflect the range of performance (good and bad) throughout a flight, or perhaps a score could reflect the worst that you would encounter. 

How a passenger perceives a session is generally based on response times. How long does it take to do something? The problem is, it is very hard to know what the passenger is trying to do, especially since much of the traffic is now encrypted. A "flight engineer" function onboard could provide a means to accurately and consistently measure performance periodically, and without undue burden or performance hit. I would note that the FCC did exactly that when they were grading ISPs.

Airline route schedules are developed to provide expected time of arrival. Reality has shown that airlines are not able to achieve perfect on-time arrival performance.  Some routes are chronically late. Over time, you can see trends, and airlines may elect to adjust arrival times to compensate. 

Internet service performance could be predicted on a particular flight by reference to performance on the previous flights, akin to on-time performance.  

could airlines add Wi-Fi performance to their on-time metrics?

A mid-day transcon may suffer from too many users. A red-eye flight may offer great performance since everyone is asleep. A flight route might take the airplane out of coverage, and that trend can be spotted.  Variable pricing could skew the results: one day cheaper/more users and the next day more costly/less users. 

The working group will noodle on these issues, and many more for sure. To be continued.

Partnerships, Agreements and Profit

We are definitely in a state of flux. 

Last week Inmarsat and Panasonic announced an agreement, where Panasonic makes Inmarsat their exclusive Ka partner for ten years, and in-return Inmarsat will utilize Panasonic value-added services as an integrated service. There is a lot to unpack from this arrangement.

Little new information has emerged, other than, as predicted, Thales has announced their intention to develop a competing global Ka solution to Inmarsat GX, yet currently Thales is a GX reseller. Let's be brutally honest, Thales was already moving out, but Inmarsat cosying up to Panasonic is likely to accelerate the division. Thales has started with Spirit, is well funded, and is deeply capable.  

What SITA and Rockwell Collins will do is not clear. SITA has no other ready channel, and Rockwell Collins OneWeb has suffered a rocky road, with no guarantee of how that will turn out. 

The Seamless Air Alliance branding is popping up throughout the show. From what I can gather, the best way to know what is going on is to join the alliance. I would not look at the participation as a seal of approval, but more about not wanting to be left out.  I have little news to report other than my initial assessment. I can confirm that while there is focus on standardization, there will be no diversion from ARINC equipment standards (notably ARINC 792). 

In working with airlines evaluating broadband offerings, I have struggled with capex (equipment, installation, certification, out of service), as airlines have to pay for this; it can get to be over one million dollars for a single airplane. We must find a way to greatly reduce that cost. ARINC standards do not define the box functionality requirements, rather they focus on interface definitions. Is there a pathway to drive costs down by standardizing the component functions? Perhaps.

The world is a messy place. I am confident there will always be outsiders that profess a way to do it better. Ensuring corporate survival can get ugly. Airlines are easily distracted by "special" deals. Can the Seamless Air Alliance unify satcom technology into a true commodity? The industry thrives on competition, the question is what should we compete over?

Airtime charges are not the singular pacing item in cost. However, as sessions grow larger with time (1 GB sessions are coming), airlines must be very careful that they have the freedom to change and adapt as better and cheaper solutions emerge. Airlines could very well benefit from driving collective space segment procurement, and that process should be free from any artificial barriers or influence from entrenched service providers.

Capex and maintenance are as big a factor.  What I always hear is that standards deter innovation.  I hope that the Seamless Air Alliance will look at driving capex down, follow emerging technology, and provide commonality in sparing, as a priority.

Airlines are going to have to find a way to draw passengers into their inflight ecosystem if they want to increase their direct revenue stream. Advertising impressions and click-throughs are going away if the passenger never sees the airline portal, and even then the revenues have not been significant. Promotions are fleeting. Product sales are flagging. I remain convinced that commissions from personalized, destination-specific, concierge sales is the holy grail, truly untapped despite promises that go back decades.

Emerging Technology

Over the next two days I am looking for exhibitor updates from:
  • Miltope continues to enhance their Wi-Fi access points with intelligence and security. Adding location will add another dimension of capability and insights.
  • Global Eagle and Telesat
  • ThinKom and Telesat, ThinKom and O3b, Thinkom and GEO Ka
  • anyone promoting ARINC 792 (Carlisle)
  • anyone with an antenna (did you know MELCO is about two years away from an ESA?)
  • Smartsky (on the cusp of service)
  • Gogo (notably, very quiet, where is nextgen ATG)
  • Viasat (How is Viasat-2 working out, Viasat-3 update)
As a last note, Howard Vermillion, Pacific Western Aero Structures found me on the floor (as he always does.) He tells me his truss design is being embraced by Boeing - he showed me a picture of the tri-band radome. Howard is one of the most driven, singularly-focused, dedicated engineers I have ever encountered. His approach does not rely on an adapter plate, yet still utilizes the standard lugs. It is a novel design that can result in a lower weight, and more room for the aperture.

The Duck

Shout out to Gore for inviting me on their Duck tour of Boston.  I lived in Cambridge for five years as a student 40+ years ago. The south end was not a welcoming location. What a difference, so exciting to see the revitalization - it's like a new city!  And the Charles River sparkles in comparison.

Stay tuned!

Peter Lemme

peter @ satcom.guru
Follow me on twitter: @Satcom_Guru
Copyright 2018 satcom.guru All Rights Reserved

Peter Lemme has been a leader in avionics engineering for 35 years. He offers independent consulting services largely focused on avionics and L, Ku, and Ka band satellite communications to aircraft. Peter chairs the SAE-ITC AEEC Ku/Ka-band satcom subcommittee, developing ARINC 791 and 792 characteristics and contributes to the Network Infrastructure and Interfaces (NIS) subcommittee developing Project Paper 848, standard for Media Independent Secure Offboard Network.

Peter was Boeing avionics supervisor for 767 and 747-400 data link recording, data link reporting, and satellite communications. He was an FAA designated engineering representative (DER) for ACARS, satellite communications, DFDAU, DFDR, ACMS and printers. Peter was lead engineer for Thrust Management System (757, 767, 747-400), also supervisor for satellite communications for 777, and was manager of terminal-area projects (GLS, MLS, enhanced vision).

An instrument-rated private pilot, single engine land and sea, Peter has enjoyed perspectives from both operating and designing airplanes. Hundreds of hours of flight test analysis and thousands of hours in simulators have given him an appreciation for the many aspects that drive aviation; whether tandem complexity, policy, human, or technical; and the difficulties and challenges to achieving success.

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