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Inflight internet ready to take off

Le Bourget, France | Sonia WOLF, AFP | Inflight internet access, a nascent market still hobbled by slow speeds, is set to take off as dedicated satellites make surfing in the skies a reality, experts say.

Even bans on bringing laptops and tablets on board imposed by Britain and the United States on flights departing from certain airports won’t halt it, industry players and analysts gathered at the Paris Air Show believe.

“It is undeniably a trend. The main thing is to jump on the wave at the right moment,” said Marc Rochet, chief executive of the low-cost airline French Blue, about the technology which is rapidly evolving but comes with a high price tag.

By 2021 more than 17,000 airliners — or nearly half the global fleet of commercial aircraft — will be equipped for inflight internet, according to a recent study by the Euroconsult firm. That is close to triple the 6,500 planes equipped in 2016.

The increase is being driven by a new generation of satellites that allow the use of smaller and lighter antennae on aircraft, as well as greater coverage by land-based systems.

This allows for higher data transmission speeds making the experience for users much as they get at home, and not the slow and spotty connections available so far.

It is a far cry from the early systems that began to be introduced around five years ago that allowed users to consult emails.

– ‘Game changer’ –

The United States was the pioneer in developing a network of ground antennae for inflight internet. There, some 4,000 planes are equipped for inflight internet compared with just hundreds in Europe.

In 2016 new satellites capable of supporting video and television streaming, games and social media began to be deployed.

“The ability to support video streaming on a large scale shall be a game changer,” said Euroconsult.

According to William Huot-Marchand, sales director at the inflight entertainment division at the aerospace firm Thales, there is also a generational change underway in airline passengers.

If previously most passengers accepted flights as a time to disconnect, younger generations, particularly millennials, don’t appreciate the forced withdrawal from social media and online access.

Euroconsult estimates that revenues to suppliers for providing inflight internet connectivity topped $1 billion in 2016 and should reach $6.5 billion by 2026.

But the investment isn’t negligible, with the cost of equipping each plane running up to half a million euros.

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