With the continuous expansion of Internet application boundaries, Internet services in civil aviation are rapidly spreading worldwide. At present, the major airlines in the United States and Europe provide relatively mature in-flight Internet services. my country also opened up control over the use of mobile phones in aircraft cabins in early 2018, ushering in the true “air Internet era”.
However, relatively speaking, the popularity of my country’s in-flight Internet is still not ideal, and there is still a gap between passengers’ expectations and actual experience on the Internet, which has become a major “blind spot” in the development of my country’s Internet industry and Internet application innovation.
Air Internet can not only expand the boundaries of Internet applications and become a new growth point for information consumption, but also an important infrastructure for the development of digital, networked, and intelligent civil aviation. At present, my country urgently needs to clarify the development bottleneck it faces, and make a layout for the next step of accelerating development.
Europe and the United States started early, and our country is speeding up to catch up
Although my country’s Internet application development level is already in the forefront of the world, there is still a certain gap in the field of air Internet compared with developed countries in Europe and the United States.
From a technical point of view, the European and American countries started to surf the Internet early and the technology is relatively mature. my country is speeding up to catch up.
Air Internet was certified by the civil aviation regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe earlier, and is now quite popular. It has become the “standard configuration” of high-quality services for major airlines, and its safety has been verified.
As early as 2005, European Airbus launched the world’s first in-flight “Wireless (WiFi) network system”, using the “Globalstar” satellite communication system to achieve high-altitude Internet access. In 2007, the United States introduced an air internet access system based on ground base stations (ATG for short). After many years of development, the technology of Internet access in the air based on satellite communications and ground base stations has gradually matured.
At present, most of the online flights in Europe and America are based on satellite communications, using large-capacity communication satellites such as ViaSat high-throughput satellites. The “Starlink” satellite constellation that is being deployed on a large scale is also expected to provide this service; ATG is mainly used for domestic flights in the United States. There are more applications on it.
In contrast, my country only started air Internet technology verification flights in 2012. In 2014, air Internet flights based on 4G LTE base stations were tested for the first time, and in 2020, air Internet flights based on high-throughput satellites were successfully maiden. Generally speaking, the maturity and stability of my country’s air Internet technology needs to be further verified and improved in large-scale commercial use.
From a service point of view, in-flight Internet services have been relatively popular in European and American countries, and my country is still in its infancy stage of development.
Related surveys by the International Maritime Satellite Organization show that in-flight Internet services have now become the third most important factor affecting passengers’ choice after ticket prices and flight schedules. According to data from China Civil Aviation Network, more than 73% of passengers’ first intention is to surf the Internet. When the flight time exceeds 4 hours, this intention is close to 100%. It can be seen that the potential market size of the air Internet business is huge.
From a global perspective, the United States is currently the country with the highest penetration rate of in-flight Internet services. Most domestic and foreign flights provide WiFi, with a penetration rate of over 80%; Europe follows closely behind, with a penetration rate of more than 50%. From a global perspective, as early as 2016, more than 36% of global flight miles could provide in-flight Internet services.
In contrast, Internet services in my country’s civil aviation started late. In 2018, the National Civil Aviation Administration of China released the “Guidelines for the Evaluation of the Use of Portable Electronic Devices on Boards” before opening the control on the use of mobile phones in the cabin. Although major domestic airlines have expressed that they will vigorously modify their existing aircraft to achieve full coverage of the Internet as soon as possible, the actual progress has not been satisfactory.
According to the “Statistical Bulletin on the Development of Civil Aviation Industry in 2020”, in 2020, only 213 aircraft will be provided with in-flight Internet services in China, accounting for about 5.5% of the aircraft operated by civil aviation. On the whole, my country’s air Internet penetration rate is still relatively low, not only behind the developed countries, but also behind the world average.
To this end, in May of this year, the “Civil Aviation New Generation Aviation Broadband Communication Technology Roadmap” issued by the National Civil Aviation Administration clearly stated that airlines should carry out exploration and research based on 5G ATG technology, and at the same time, in conjunction with the development of satellite Internet technology, carry out related promotion of passengers. Experience the application and service pilot.
A big “blind spot” in Internet applications
With the continuous and in-depth development of the Internet today, the ability of the in-flight Internet to become a major “blind spot” in Internet applications is mainly related to the three limiting factors of this technology and the service itself.
First of all, the cost of realizing Internet access in the air is still relatively high.
Currently, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Xiamen Airlines and other domestic airlines mostly rely on Ku-band satellites to provide in-flight WiFi services. European and American companies such as Panasonic Avionics are mainly selected as suppliers of satellite access equipment and in-flight WiFi systems. The cost of retrofitting passenger planes amounts to several million yuan, and high satellite leasing fees will be incurred during the operation process, and the overall cost is relatively high.
The modification and operating costs of passenger planes connected to the ATG mode are relatively low, but telecom operators need to build or renovate a large number of dedicated ground base stations along the route, which will also incur high costs. In addition, in order to ensure flight safety to the utmost extent, domestic airlines have stricter requirements on Internet access, and airlines need to bear more revenue losses caused by grounding during the inspection and acceptance of the modification.
These costs simply being borne by the airlines will increase a lot of cost and expenditure, especially during the epidemic period, the airlines are affected by this and their revenues have fallen sharply, and the willingness to invest in construction is low.
Secondly, the user experience of Internet surfing in the air is not good.
Satellite communication is the mainstream way to surf the Internet at present in the country, but the bandwidth of traditional Ku-band satellites is insufficient, and it is difficult to meet the needs of a large number of users for smooth Internet access at the same time.
Since the satellite communication bandwidth allocated to a single aircraft is only a few megabytes to tens of megabytes, the Internet speed of each passenger is about tens of K to hundreds of K, which can only realize web browsing, email, text chat, online payment, etc. Applications with low bandwidth requirements, such as multimedia services such as picture, voice, and video, cannot meet the network performance of multimedia services, and when there are a large number of users, the Internet experience drops sharply.
With the large-scale popularization of 5G mobile phones today, the gap between the speed of Internet access in the air and the speed of 5G will bring a huge gap in the Internet experience to passengers, which may reduce the enthusiasm for payment.
In addition, the current number of domestic flights that provide in-flight Internet services is relatively small, making it difficult to meet the Internet needs of business travelers and other customers with higher Internet needs.
Furthermore, the business model is not yet mature.
So far, there has not been a particularly successful business model for Air Internet in the world.
Most foreign airlines adopt the business model of paying to surf the Internet, and the cost of surfing the Internet is relatively high. For example, Delta Air Lines charges $5 or $28 per hour for a single-day Internet access fee for global flights, and currently only about 12% of passengers choose to purchase the service. There are also some airlines that use free Internet access as a means of acquiring customers, but this fee is actually included in the ticket price, such as JetBlue Airways, Virgin Airways, Norwegian Airways, etc.
At this stage, most Chinese airlines provide free in-flight Internet trial operation services. Some flights require economy class passengers to exchange points or miles, and fee-based services have not yet been introduced. To achieve large-scale popularization, it is urgent to explore a business model that suits my country’s national conditions.
Costs must be lowered, and technology must be improved
In response to the above three major bottlenecks that hinder the development of my country’s air Internet industry, breakthroughs can be sought from the following three levels:
First, take multiple measures to reduce the cost of air Internet construction.
The first is to promote the introduction of an air Internet development action plan or guidance. Clarify the timetable and roadmap for the large-scale deployment of my country’s in-flight Internet, accelerate technical verification, establish and improve my country’s in-flight Internet industry application technology standards and standard systems as soon as possible, reduce costs through large-scale deployment, and increase the enthusiasm of airlines to install and upgrade equipment .
The second is to optimize the supplier ecosystem. Promote suppliers to develop interoperable standardized units, accelerate the localization of key equipment, and build a more competitive and cost-effective supplier ecosystem.
The third is to jointly build and share air Internet facilities. Airlines and airborne network equipment providers can achieve co-construction and sharing through resource exchange or cooperation, thereby reducing construction costs.
The fourth is to reduce the idle cost of aircraft modification and upgrade. Under the normalization of epidemic prevention and control, airlines should try their best to make reasonable arrangements for the modification of airborne networking equipment during the suspension period of some routes, and try to pre-install them in the aircraft as standard equipment for newly purchased aircraft.
Second, speed up the evolution and upgrade of large-capacity communication satellites and ATG communication systems.
The first is to accelerate the network construction of my country’s high-throughput satellite and low-orbit satellite Internet constellations.
International experience shows that high-throughput satellite communications can significantly improve user experience and reduce usage costs. my country currently has only two high-throughput satellites, Zhongxing 16 and Asia-Pacific 6D. The actual communication bandwidth of a single aircraft is only 10-50MB, which is far from meeting the needs of network communication after large-scale development. The low-orbit satellite Internet constellation has the advantage of short time delay while meeting the global large-capacity communication, and it is an important direction to meet the needs of air Internet communication.
The second is to accelerate the upgrading of the ATG communication system from 4G to 5G in combination with the new 5G infrastructure, and to promote 5G ATG R&D trials and large-scale deployment.
Compared with satellite communication, ATG communication technology has advantages in operating costs and is more suitable for domestic flight networking requirements that do not require cross-sea coverage. Taking the “5G Application “Sailing” Action Plan (2021-2023)” as an opportunity, we will increase the application and promotion of 5G to the civil aviation industry, promote relevant departments and enterprises to jointly issue implementation plans and rules, accelerate network deployment, and build a global leader New infrastructure for 5G ATG civil aviation.
Furthermore, the cross-border integration of the industrial chain promotes business model innovation.
One is to introduce Internet companies to accelerate business model innovation.
Air Internet is a platform-based service business, and its construction and operation involve multiple parties such as airlines, communication operators, content service providers, and passengers. Judging from the development experience of my country’s Internet industry, business model innovation driven by Internet companies is more vital and innovative.
The second is to encourage the exploration of multi-type and multi-level charging service models.
For example, provide first-class, official and business passengers with free high-quality Internet services and in-flight entertainment services, provide monthly and annual Internet packages for frequent passengers, and provide economy class passengers with free low-speed Internet access with advertisements + paid high-speed Internet access Optional package services, ATG mode flights can explore free or low-cost high-speed Internet services.
The third is to use platform big data to improve airline service levels and brand value.
Passengers on board are high-net-worth groups. With the help of big data technology, it can provide passengers with richer and more personalized shopping, travel, entertainment-related products and services in relatively closed on-board time, and increase the attractiveness and attendance of airlines. For example, it cooperates with physical airport stores, duty-free shops, and logistics companies to develop innovative services such as one-stop shopping services that passengers can get off the plane.