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Fuel costs hold back in-flight WiFi in Africa

SouthWestAirlineantenna

Aerodynamics and sky-high fuel costs are key reasons for the lack of available WiFi networks onboard especially domestic African airlines, say experts.

WiFi connectivity onboard planes is made possible by antennae on aircraft that provide wireless data connections via either satellite or specialised ground based cellular networks. The ground based cellular networks, in particular, use the high-speed wireless data communications ‘evolution data optimised’ network called EV-DO.

Carriers that choose to implement WiFi therefore have a choice between fitting antennae on top of an aircraft’s roof to communicate with satellites, or towards the bottom part of the aircraft to access the ground-based EV-DO network.

But antennae that particularly fit on top of an aircraft’s roof to access satellite WiFi networks (such as the antenna pictured above) are shaped and even weighted in such a way that they affect a plane’s aerodynamics, resulting in decreased flight speeds and increased fuel usage, says Steve Good, the vice president for network services at satellite services firm Intelsat.

“There is a lot of downtime on airplanes … and people want to be connected for different reasons whether it’s personal or for business,” said Good speaking on the sidelines of the SatCom 2013 Africa event in Johannesburg last week.

“But it’s always a trade of whether the airline would provide the service or not,” he said.

Nevertheless, a number of airlines in nations such as the US have bore the brunt of potential additional fuel costs by implementing WiFi onboard flights.

Website Routehappy.com this year ran a survey that said 24% of domestic flights in the US offer Wi-Fi, 56% did not and 20% were considering implementing it.

But in one of Africa’s busiest domestic airline markets, South Africa, only local airline Mango, which is owned by state-run airline South African Airways (SAA), has rolled-out in-flight WiFi on its passenger planes.

And in-flight WiFi may be last on the priority list for other South African domestic airlines, especially in a competitive market where airlines try to mitigate factors such as high fuel costs to offer cheaper seats.

Last year, South African domestic airlines Velvet Sky and 1Time shut their businesses, citing spiralling fuel costs as part of reasons for their closures.

And last week the International Air Transport Association (IATA) director of operations in Africa, Mike Higgin, said low cost airlines could continue to close down in countries such as South Africa as a result of escalating fuel prices

"I’ve been in South Africa for a long time and we've seen a lot of LCC (Low Cost Carriers) collapse and the yields just do not support the operations and operations cannot expand exponentially," said Higgin, quoted in a South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) report.

Meanwhile, South African domestic airline kulula.com has told ITWeb Africa that it has investigated its ability to potentially provide in-flight WiFi.

But the low-cost airline says that the costs of implementing the service are just too high.

“There were a number of factors which we considered during the investigation like the installation cost of the equipment, the additional fuel used due to the additional weight and aerodynamic drag, the ongoing cost of the satellite bandwidth, the cost of the downtime to fit the equipment to the airframe and how much this service would cost the customer,” Shaun Pozyn, marketing manager for kulula.com and British Airways told ITWeb Africa.

“Our longest flights are around two hours long, so customers will only be able to use WiFi for a very short period while travelling with us.

“After taking the above factors into consideration our investigation proved that the costs are just too high to look at implementing this service onboard,” said Pozyn.

Yet options do exist for airlines to provide WiFi as part of their service offering, says Steve Good of Intelsat.

“Of course there are different business models that can be used like provide connectivity as a paid for service and charge up to $9 or $10 or use it as a differentiator. Use it as a differentiator to compete with other airlines,” he said.

Kulula.com’s Pozyn did however say that the airline plans to continue to monitor developments around WiFi for planes.

He added that should a more viable option become available, kulula.com could look at it and explore it further.

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