High up in the clouds at an altitude of 35,000 feet, passengers by late next year will watch YouTube videos, post tweets, join in WhatsApp conversations, check Facebook updates and send emails in real time.
In a global first from the UAE, Wi-Fly, a superfast internet service with none of the buffering that slows down current inflight communication, is likely to be available on airplanes from late 2018.
Passengers on Etihad flights will have access to uninterrupted Wi-Fi connectivity they are accustomed to at home or at work as part of a partnership with satellite operator Yahsat and telecom company du that aims to revolutionise onboard links.
Inside a compact container, nestled in the Sweihan desert at the Yahsat headquarters, officials gathered on Thursday to push a single button. This set off a series of tests confirming a 50mbps connection would be viable onboard an aircraft to allow streaming of high speed content and seamless use of mobile and other devices while flying.
A consortium of Emirati and international companies will conduct certification and testing through the year.
“We want to replicate the experience that we have on the ground today and be able to provide superfast internet and Wi-Fi on a plane so it’s not limited. At the moment on a plane you might be able to access some social media, update your profile but with this new solution you will be able to stream content and watch video seamlessly,” said Donovan Smith, executive director marketing and operations of Al Yah Satellite Communications Company or Yahsat, owned by Mubadala, the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government.
“This is a UAE innovation, it shows our leadership and ability to develop propositions and experiences on a global stage. We have been able to create something that has only been spoken about for a while.”
The satellite signals will be pulled in by two antenna enclosed within a dome fixed near the plane’s tail wing and a Wi-Fi router inside the aircraft will transmit the broadband network throughout the plane.
In Thursday’s test, the small container unit replicated a plane with the antennas placed outside as engineers checked for uninterrupted connectivity.
The system will be fitted onto an Etihad plane during the Dubai Airshow next month as part of the testing process.
Once certification is completed, the unit could be built into the production line of new aircraft.
Cost estimates are not yet available.
“It will be in line with what is available on airlines today. It will be competitive,” Mr Smith said.
Etihad Airways said the test was crucial to demonstrate capability.
“This kick-off is to show that we are capable of doing this. It is the beginning of a test phase,” said Bernhard Randerath, Etihad’s vice president, design, engineering and innovation.
“We will need to complete certifications and test flights to check the performance on aircrafts. The technology we have now is okay, the passenger is satisfied. But this is the next step where we want it to be faster, so they feel like they are at home with a strong signal. People want to connect fluently, to have wonderful IT, entertainment and global connectivity in the cabin. This is the future.”
The technology will be protected from cyberattacks with du safeguarding the Wi-Fi systems.
“We will use firewalls, Trojan detection systems that can first block a threat, in addition it will predict, analyse and identify where the threat is coming from,” said Saleem Al Blooshi, du’s chief infrastructure officer.
“We already use analytical capabilities to protect mission critical infrastructure in the country and this expertise will be transferred here.”
The UAE consortium worked with global technology firms Hughes Network Systems and Carlisle to address the current glitches in inflight connectivity that the airline industry has frequently complained about.
Earlier studies have reflected the passenger requirement for Wi-Fi connections. More than 54 per cent passengers who answered a recent survey wanted inflight connectivity that ranked higher than demand for inflight entertainment, meal preference and duty free purchases.
“What the customer is telling us is that connectivity has become a must have. If you’re not connected, you could be bypassed by consumers,” Mr Smith said.
When launched in 2018-19, the high speed connections will initially be available in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and will grow with Yahsat’s expanding coverage.
“We do not cover the entire globe today, but the coverage will grow in time as the satellite distribution and our relationships grow,” he said.
Once the roll out is completed on Etihad, the network will be marketed to airlines across the world.
Aircraft systems will be separate from inflight Wi-Fi
Telecoms company du has explained how the high-speed inflight connection will be protected from cyber attacks.
“We will ensure technical integrity so no one is able to change, compromise or manipulate data,” said Saleem Al Blooshi, du’s chief infrastructure officer.
“An attack can be internal or from outside and we will put in protection, firewalls and secure the system on both sides.
The internet and Wi-Fi connection is a separate system that will not be connected to the aircraft’s communication, avionics, engines or radar.
“As an infrastructure operator we manage everything from business, banking, entertainment and education on our platform,” Mr Al Blooshi said.
“We understand security and how to put up the required defence against any attack. We can also predict what can happen in the future based on current data and place more security measures.
“Managing functionality in-flight is one aspect but security is a critical aspect for any infrastructure.”