Thales has purchased the majority of the capacity on the future Ka-band SES-17 high-throughput satellite, shown here, to be owned and operated by SES and built by Thales Alenia Space in time for a 2020 launch. Thales will debut its FlytLIVE in-flight-entertainment/In-flight-connectivity service this summer using SES’s AMC-15 and AMC-16 satellites. Satellite operator EchoStar Hughes is expected to announce that, in addition, Thales is purchasing capacity on the EchoStar Hughes EchoStar-17/Jupiter-1 and EchoStar-19/Jupiter-2 satellites. Credit: Thales
PARIS — In-flight entertainment provider Thales is counting on its future FlytLIVE system to staunch the migration of young airline passengers’ interest from seat-back screens to their own connected devices by embedding the two systems together.
The outcome, they hope, is that American Airlines’ recent decision to scrap seat-back screens for certain future short- and medium-haul flights will stop with American and not be imitated by other airlines.
The U.S. airliner has decided that ViaSat Inc.’s future Ka-band satellites will deliver enough bandwidth to allow passengers to satisfy their connectivity and entertainment demands with their own screens — a huge savings for the airline.
That kind of thinking is anathema to Thales Avionics, a glimpse of a terrible future the company is now determined to avoid.
Enter FlytLIVE, an all-in-one entertainment, high-bandwidth connectivity and live-TV package that will be delivered partly by satellite and partly by the on-board IFE systems that are Thales’s bread and butter.
Unlike Panasonic Avionics, which like Thales has a large installed base of IFE customers but has also purchased masses of satellite bandwidth over the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Atlantic and Pacific air corridors, Thales was late to the satellite-connectivity game.
Thales is majority customer for SES-17 Ka-band satellite
In September 2016 it signed an agreement, 18 months in the making, with satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg committing to a large, long-term purchase of capacity on a future satellite, called SES-17.
Built by Thales Alenia Space, SES-17 will provide broadband connectivity to the Americas starting in 2020. But starting in 2017, Thales FlytLIVE will debut using two older SES satellites, called AMC-15 and AMC-16, both of which are equipped with Ka-band.
At a briefing with journalists here March 1 during Thales’s InnovDays, during which the company highlights promising future technologies, Thales officials described how they hope to win the attention span of tomorrow’s air passengers.
“American Airlines pulled out of IFE for certain U.S. flights in the future and for us, this forced us to think: What can we do to stop that?” said Jean-Yves Couleaud, a manager of Thales’s in-flight-entertainment (IFE) division. An IFC customer is lost to IFE and our job is to enhanced IFE’s value.”
Thales officials said one of their first tasks is to upgrade passenger data analytics to provide a clearer sense of what passengers like, and how to monetize that data through targeted advertising.
“The advertisements on flights now are pretty darn bad,” Couleaud said. “We can introduce much more customization, especially if passengers share with us certain data already on their personal devices in terms of entertainment preferences. It’s true the cost of IFE today is pretty high, and we can lower it.”
Thales officials said they understood that satellite-enabled IFC will be part of the commercial airlines’ must-have services now that high-throughput satellites are being launched over all the major commercial air routes.
Netflix and Amazon Prime and Youtube have been early draws for U.S.-based IFC, just as they are in U.S. homes.
“We can compete with Youtube by providing a much more targeted entertainment experience,” said another Thales official. “Look at what happens in homes: Young people have a TV screen hooked up to a tablet, which is connected to their smartphones. We can replicate that on planes, with IFE and our InFlyt Cloud playing a central role.”
Thales now appears determined to catch up on advances made by rivals Gogo Inc., Global Eagle Entertainment and ViaSat Inc. in securing satellite capacity over North America.
For Thales, AMC-15, AMC-16 and now Hughes’s Jupiter 1 and Jupiter 2
One industry official said Thales has agreed to make a substantial purchase of bandwidth from EchoStar Corp.’s Hughes division, which operates one large Ka-band satellite, Jupiter-1/EchoStar-17, and is about to start service late this month on the much larger Jupiter-2/EchoStar-19, which was launched in December.
Hughes officials had referenced a coming IFC partner during the EchoStar earnings conference call with investors on Feb. 24 but did not name the customer.