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Wireless in-flight entertainment expanding in the skies -- soon

For business and leisure travelers alike, a frustrating part of flying is the lack of access to wireless services for work or entertainment. But that will change soon, as increasing numbers of airlines install equipment that will allow passengers to connect to the Internet, according to a new report released Thursday.

Only about 80 planes today now have access to streaming wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE). But that number is forecast to reach nearly 9,000 aircraft by 2021, allowing passengers far more options for entertainment and communication, according to the report by IMS Research, a market research firm. The report was produced following interviews with hardware suppliers and communications companies as well as a survey of 50 major airlines, according to Alastair Hayfield, research director of IMS Research.

Deployment of such systems will begin around the world in earnest this year, with a steady installation rate per year up to 2021, Hayfield said. Hundreds of planes in the United States do already offer in-flight, WiFi connectivity in which essentially the plane acts as a hotspot. Wireless IFE is a step beyond this as, typically, a server is installed in the aircraft that allows a range of content such as video, games, audio and connectivity to be beamed around the cabin from providers such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Pandora and Spotify. 

Wireless in-flight entertainment systems on planes would allow passengers to use their own devices to access the Internet, and also to stream a wider selection of content than can be stored on their devices. Southwest and Delta are undergoing trials on the technology, according to the survey by IMS. Other airlines trying it out on a limited basis are Delta, American, Air China and Qantas.

At the moment, traditional in-flight entertainment like movies is usually available on a screen embedded in a seat back or hanging from the cabin ceiling. But Hayfield says a new wireless innovation is emerging that is removing the need for cabling, and taking away the need for fixed entertainment systems altogether. Wireless IFE systems beam media such as video, TV, games and audio around the cabin to be received on passengers’ tablets, smartphones, or airlines’ own handheld devices.

Those likely to benefit the most are passengers of low-cost airlines or passengers on older fleets. If these aircraft don’t have a seat-back or overhead IFE system, the addition of a wireless IFE system could provide passengers on those aircraft with an entertainment system through their tablet computer, laptop or smartphone, significantly improving their travel experience. It would be a cheap and low-cost addition for the airlines as well, say those who follow the technology.

The Federal Aviation Association does not at present allow the use of personal electronic devices like smartphones, iPads or electronic readers such as Kindles on planes during taxing, take-off or landing, citing concerns they might interfere with a jet’s avionics systems. But that may be changing. Laura J. Brown, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs for the F.A.A., told the New York Times recently that the agency has decided to take a “fresh look” at the use of personal electronics and figure out how to test them for safety. Clearly, any IFE will need to comply with all relevant safety rules when in use, whatever they might be at the time.

One factor hard to pin down at present is what the cost will be to passengers to use such wireless systems. “This is a difficult question to answer as the cost will likely vary by carrier, route, passenger class and flight duration,” Hayfield told msnbc.com. Currently, the service Gogo costs $12.95 for a 24-hour pass, or $39.95 for a month on in-flight Internet access.

Business travelers already expect to receive free Internet access where it is available, and would likely expect to receive free wireless IFE too, he said. For leisure travelers, paying for wireless IFE may well be a popular addition on flights where there isn’t an entertainment system or the entertainment system is overhead with limited choice.

Many airlines already rent out personal electronic devices (PEDs) pre-loaded with a selection of movies or TV shows. On Alaska Airlines, for instance, it costs between $6 and $14, depending on whether the device is reserved ahead of time and the length of the flight. Hawaiian Airlines offers a similar service.

Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, says that streaming IFE content is an approach that makes sense for airlines. Atmosphere's fourth quarter study in 2011 of 2,670 airline travelers in the United States showed that 83 percent have a laptop, 27 percent have tablet devices like iPads and that 59 percent have a smartphone.

“They bring these devices, especially tablets and smartphones, with them on most trips,” Harteveldt said. “A critical mass of travelers have the capability to take advantage of streaming entertainment. Plus, passengers who don't have these devices, especially tablets, show strong intentions to buy one, which will only increase the potential audience for this product. Airlines have tested renting or loaning out iPads, Samsung Galaxy tablets, and Google laptops to travelers, which allows travelers who don't have these devices to take advantage of the entertainment. 

“The challenge will be whether travelers will pay for this," he added. "Airlines will need to be able to separate the connectivity needed to access the plane's IFE system from that needed to connect to Wi-Fi, which would allow the traveler to send e-mail, for example. I disagree with the assertion that business travelers expect in-flight Wi-Fi to be free, but I agree with the point that those in a premium cabin expect entertainment to be complimentary. Airlines will face some logistical challenges on how they offer the entertainment. I suspect that premium cabin travelers will be given a code to enter so that their entertainment is free.”

IMS Research is currently producing a passenger survey that will attempt to answer questions on how much passengers would be willing to pay for WiFi, video streaming, gaming and other such options, Hayfield said.

He thinks passengers will welcome the improvement. “Until very recently, we have all been cut-off from the outside world when flying, dependent on a limited program of entertainment, or reliant upon our own media,” he says. “But very soon we will all be able to access not only online content, but be able to communicate with family, friends and colleagues (and) keep tabs on ongoing travel plans.”

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