In-flight Internet still coming to South Africa


In-flight Internet will be available to SA air passengers as soon as the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) gives it the green light.

An application for in-flight Internet will be submitted to the South African Civil Aviation Authority this month, said Wireless G CEO Carel van der Merwe. Wireless G has the sole rights to provide the service in Africa starting from May 1.

According to Internet service provider Wireless G, the satellite-based technology, which delivers high-speed Internet at high altitude, will be rolled out locally in partnership with one airline, which it could not reveal at this time.

Wireless G earlier said in-flight Internet would be available as soon as April. Earlier this year, Mango Airlines announced it was going to offer Internet connectivity onboard for its Johannesburg and Cape Town routes from 1 May. However, this project did not take off as planned.

Although Mango was to be the first airline to offer the service, Wireless G is in discussions with other airlines.

However, the SACAA said there has been no formal application nor approval granted by the authority for in-flight usage of Internet services. Wireless G said it will submit an application to the SACAA this month.
van der Merwe said in-flight Internet will be a major breakthrough in terms of convenience, productivity, entertainment and advantages of having communication in general. He said this will benefit more than 19 million local airline passengers.
“SA is a country with a device penetration rate of more than 100% and broadband take-up grows more than 30% per annum. In-flight WiFi is the missing link in telecommunications,” he said.

Two factors that determine the solution viability in Africa are the bandwidth capacity to meet user expectations and the route coverage over remote areas, Van der Merwe pointed out. “There is only one solution at this point in time that caters for this, which is WiFi connected to satellite backhaul, he said.

Using Fli G-Connect will be the same as picking up a Wi-Fi signal from anywhere else, with speeds consistent with the normal Wireless G Wi-Fi hotspot experience. Either a voucher is purchased or a customer puts in existing G-Connect account details. The service will be cheaper for G-Connect customers, who would also be able to take unused bandwidth with them.

Wireless G said that on-board connectivity is a common request from airline passengers, and that 95% of frequent fliers in the United States agree with the statement that in-flight Wi-Fi is “the best thing airlines have done” in the last three years. 50% of business travellers take Wi-Fi enabled flights to be “reachable” during business hours, WirelessG said.

According to Wakefield Research and the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi has clearly become a major decision-factor in frequent fliers’ choosing of airlines. 76% of frequent fliers would change their airline to have in-flight Wi-Fi. 55% of them would change their flight by a full day to have it. And another 71% of frequent fliers would prefer Wi-Fi access rather than meal service.

On Virgin America flights 10-15% of passengers pay for in-flight Internet and on transcontinental flights up to a quarter of passengers make use of the service, Wireless G said. Due to shorter flights within South Africa, early models show a 15% take-up rate will be critical.

The technology uses a low-profile antenna, four compact line replaceable units, a server management unit, a high power amplifier, an antenna control unit and a modem data unit on each equipped aircraft.

To deliver a WiFi signal, one or more wireless access units will also need to be placed in the aircraft.

Van der Merwe said WirelessG is ready in terms of getting the first aircraft connected. “Further announcements related to progress and readiness will be made together with our first airline and backhaul provider partners.”

SACAA spokesman, Kabelo Ledwaba, said just like fitting any additional equipment on aircraft; this equipment will have to first be approved by the SACAA. In this case, the applicant will have to apply for and be issued with a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) Safety certification.

Moreover, provided that an STC is issued for a particular type of aircraft, an airline or operator may apply for the piece of equipment to be installed for each individual aircraft and that will be recorded in the aircraft file.

Regardless, Ledwaba said that to enable in-flight Internet usage, an aircraft would have to be modified with equipment such as antennae, wiring, and the like, in order to enable in-flight WiFi transmission.

The STC has already been approved by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and will be submitted to the CAA this month, Van der Merwe said.

Last week the SACAA announced that it would now allow the use of cellphones onboard. This means while a passenger’s phone is on in-flight mode, they will be able to connect to the in-flight WiFi, WirelessG said.
“It would, therefore, come as no surprise when we receive an application by an operator who may want to provide passengers with an additional benefit, thus gaining competitive edge over other airlines,” the SACAA said.

The safety of in-flight wireless Internet has already been approved by the FAA and the technology has been installed on some 800 planes in America already. Extensive testing was done in the United States to ensure the equipment does not interfere with aircraft avionics.