United/Continental gave more momentum to the satellite end of the burgeoning in-flight Wi-Fi industry by announcing today that it chose Panasonic Avionics to provide in-flight connectivity on more than 300 United and Continental mainline aircraft beginning in mid-2012.
"Panasonic’s Ku-band satellite technology offers faster speed than air-to-ground technology (ATG) and will provide connectivity on flights worldwide. The system will also enable wireless streaming of video content," the airline said.
That statement underscores a situation that I have been writing about for a while. Which is: 1. It's becoming clear that a big chunk of the in-flight Wi-Fi market will be driven by passengers' use of their own personal Wi-Fi enabled devices, rather than just seat-back screens installed by airlines. And 2, perhaps more importantly, satellite Wi-Fi technology provides more bandwidth, increasingly necessary because of the phenomenal proliferation of bandwidth-gobbling personal devices like smartphones and, especially, iPads and other tablets -- which are basically driven by video streaming.
"Our customers tell us they value Wi-Fi," Jim Compton, United’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer, says in a press release. “As a global carrier, we selected satellite-based Ku-band technology to enable customers to stay connected on long-haul overseas flights, something no other U.S.-based international carrier currently offers.”
Panasonic is thus a growing presence in the in-flight Wi-Fi market, long dominated by Aircell, which has its land-antenna-based air-to-ground system installed in more than 1,100 aircraft on more than a half-dozen domestic airlines.
The leader so far in the satellite segment of the in-flight market is Row 44, which is installing its high-bandwidth systems in Southwest Airlines' fleet of about 550 Boeing 737s. Southwest is about to introduce a proprietary portal on that system which will provide a wide range of live TV, on-demand movies, games and other services, including the ability to make online retail purchases and book restaurants and get entertainment and sports tickets, as well as book hotels and other travel services.
(Southwest told me that it hasn't yet decided what, if anything, to do about in-flight service on AirTran, which it bought last year and whose fleet -- a mixture of 717s and 737s - is equipped with the Aircell system.)
Meanwhile, United/Continental said it expects to install the Panasonic system on Airbus 319 and 320 and Boeing 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft. The airline says it expects the entire mainline fleet will have Wi-Fi by 2015. Continental Airlines previously announced plans to install satellite-based Wi-Fi on more than 200 DIRECTV®-equipped aircraft beginning in 2012.