2’s Company, 28’s a Crowd: Truth and Lies in Wireless IFE

With the world and his W-IFE now seemingly involved, keeping track of developments in this market is one that becomes more difficult with every passing quarter. At last count (Q1 2019), 25 service providers had installed their respective solutions on at least one aircraft, and more are entering the fray all the time. TEAC’s new portable solution, PortaStream, launched with IBEX Airlines on April 1st, Mythopoeia is currently rolling out its streaming platform on Rossiya and Atlas Air, while Phitek’s long-delayed deployment of Cabinstream boxes on the Afrijet ATR fleet is finally underway. So there will be at least 28 active vendors when we get round to crunching the numbers for Q2 and as we’ve covered before, plenty of candidates providing infotainment solutions in other transportation markets that may also decide they want a piece of the action.

Even so, the market is what the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) would define as “moderately concentrated” – 1,693 being the total of each companies’ squared market share. In comparison, seatback IFE, which is dominated by Panasonic Avionics and Thales, has a HHI of 4,809, which is indicative of a highly concentrated marketplace. The reason for this is that the top five vendors – Gogo, Panasonic Avionics, Global Eagle, Viasat and Thales – collectively account for just over three-quarters of all aircraft with W-IFE. Each company owes their lofty position in the market share rankings primarily to their in-flight connectivity (IFC) heritage – W-IFE shares the same on-board architecture as IFC and can be bolted onto existing installations relatively easily.

Beyond this top five lies a clutch of vendors offering W-IFE solutions with no connectivity element of their own, although several have partnered with IFC providers to combine the two services. Only five of these companies have equipped more than 100 aircraft with W-IFE; Lufthansa Systems, AirFi, Safran (Zii), Immfly and Bluebox Aviation Systems. And contrary to the incredible number of competing W-IFE studies being pumped out on a near daily basis (see exhibits A, B and C), BAE systems are not active in the market and haven’t been for some time, while Bluebox Avionics became Bluebox Aviation Systems more than two years ago. Just remember folks, not all market intelligence firms were created equal. Some of us spend hours conducting real, primary research ?

The influx of vendors certainly makes sense when you consider the apparent advantages of W-IFE – less costly systems, reduced weight/fuel burn, rapid installation (in the case of portable W-IFE), lower maintenance costs, an abundance of PEDs being brought on board, a large untapped single-aisle market, the potential to generate ancillary revenues etc. But eight years after wireless streaming first came to the fore, there are problems still to be ironed out.

Chief amongst them is the apparent frustration passengers experience when dealing with app-based DRM. Whether it be confusion that on-board Wi-Fi is not necessarily the same as Wi-Fi that opens the door to the world wide web, an inability to download an app in a disconnected environment, or issues with compatibility across different mobile operating systems, it would seem that the move away from app-based DRM can’t come soon enough. For service providers, app-based DRM is undesirable for several reasons. Not only do passengers often forget to download W-IFE applications ahead of their journey, evidence is stacking up to suggest there’s a ceiling on the number of apps they are willing to download and use. And of course, apps create additional costs every time an update to an operating system is rolled out.

Another issue is the lack of in-seat power on the majority of single-aisle aircraft – the key target market for W-IFE vendors. According to our latest study, about 20% of single-aisle seats have an in-seat power outlet, compared to about 75% of available seats on twin-aisle aircraft. With no access to on-board power, there is every chance passengers won’t use W-IFE and instead, opt to preserve precious charge for when they land. Thankfully, departmental siloes that have prevented these two amenities from being deployed at the same time are showing signs of breaking down.

The question remains whether the market can sustain nigh-on 30 different vendors. It’s one thing putting together impressive looking demo solutions inexpensively. However, ensuring these solutions satisfy Hollywood studios, demonstrating PCI compliance and getting installations done under STC are all difficult, time consuming and expensive. That’s without taking into account the difficulties in facing off against established IFE players who carry more clout when it comes to getting their solutions approved for the line-fit market and who can often draw upon expansive R&D budgets of parent companies, as well as the ability to offer truly global after sales services.

Consolidation seems inevitable and it would be foolish to assume others won’t go the way of Storebox Inflight, Ocleen TV, BAE Systems and PaxLife, all of which entered and exited the market in a relatively small space of time.

As part of our aviation portfolio, and to supplement our in-depth annual deep dive into the in-flight entertainment market, Valour Consultancy delivers a quarterly tracker designed to keep those with an interest in the area updated on W-IFE installation activity and key trends. Unlike other quarterly trackers, the W-IFE tracker is extremely rich in data with various splits including airline, product type, aircraft type, sub fleet, fitment type, geographic region, connectivity and service provider and hardware partners. Its updated with input from service providers and airlines and is a must-have resource for anyone looking for an accurate and up-to-date understanding of the market.