DisConnexion at eXchange’s launch party

 - September 12, 2006, 1:17 PM

Boeing’s plan to shut down its Connexion in-flight Internet service by the end of the year has thrown the future of Rockwell Collins’s eXchange high-speed-data service into limbo as the avionics maker searches for a new program partner.  

“Customers certainly are concerned,” said Tim Rayl, senior marketing director at Rockwell Collins, “but we remain committed to providing broadband solutions and are in discussions with alternative service providers.”

The eXchange service connects to the Internet through Ku-band satellites owned by companies that have lease agreements with Connexion by Boeing. Now that Connexion is going off the air, Rockwell Collins will have to sign transponder lease agreements of its own. Rayl said the competition is down to four satellite operators, adding that an alternative requiring a “modest amount” of hardware and software changes appears possible.

The demise of the unprofitable six-year-old Connexion service put a damper on what should have been only good news last month for Rockwell Collins. The avionics maker announced that a newly manufactured Global Express XRS became the first customer airplane to enter service with eXchange hardware. The delivery marked the official start of the eXchange service, albeit in limited beta test as developers worked out some of the early kinks with the system.

Rockwell Collins engineers have been riding aboard the shakedown flights on the customer Global Express XRS trying to correct a nagging problem. The trouble appears to be related to the equipment installed in the airplane that is providing slower-than-hoped-for connections. Rayl said Rockwell Collins engineers are working to sort out the bugs and hope to have the problem fixed soon.

“The satellite coverage has been good, but we’re seeing data rates that aren’t quite what we expected,” he said. “In all of those cases we’ve been able to find an issue in our own system. The actual satellite network seems to be performing properly.”

Connexion has been advertised to deliver data rates of up to five megabits per second (mbps) to the airplane and 256 kilobits per second (kbps) coming off the airplane. It’s too early to say what speeds customers could expect to see through a new Ku service, Rayl said, but the target is for data rates roughly in line with those available through Connexion.

The early glitches appeared related to the way the eXchange hardware and software was interacting with different Ku-band Connexion satellites, Rayl said. While the satellite covering North America consistently delivered promised data rates, satellites in other parts of the world (such as over the Pacific Ocean) were not making as strong a connection. (Boeing has been leasing transmitter space on a number of Ku-band satellites for coverage over North America, the North Atlantic, Europe, the Middle East and the North Pacific; Rockwell Collins has not announced what coverage area a retooled eXchange service will include.)

Alternatives to Connexion

The big question on most observers’ minds centers not on the early teething troubles with eXchange but instead on what Rockwell Collins will do to keep the service operating for business jet customers. Connexion has been in operation with only a handful of airlines (none of them based in the U.S.) and has done nothing but lose money from the beginning. Once Connexion goes off the air for good, Rayl said Collins can shift eXchange customers to another satellite platform relatively quickly. “It’s not like we’re in a dead-end situation,” he said. “There are lots of alternatives.”

Before Connexion shuts down in December, eXchange software code will be rewritten to match the protocols of a new satellite service. Collins is exploring transponder lease agreements in various parts of the world similar to the relationship Connexion by Boeing has had with satellite operators until now. In such a case service pricing would likely rise, but it is too early to say by how much, Rayl said.

Pricing for eXchange through Connexion is currently based on monthly and yearly plans that range in price from $2.50 to $5 per minute. The lowest-priced bulk-purchase plan essentially gives the customer an
“always-on” connection, while the higher $5-per-minute plan includes about 10 hours of access per month. Most customers are opting for higher-usage plans that give them predictable costs, Rayl said, adding that launch customers are getting price breaks while the service is in beta testing.

Prices for accessing Connexion aboard airliners were roughly in line with what people might pay in a hotel or at a local Starbucks, with a small premium on top of the typical charges. An hour’s access in flight cost $9.95, and a 24-hour pass that was transferable from airplane to airplane was $26.95. But service pricing wasn’t the barrier causing profitability problems for Boeing. Rather, high hardware costs forced most airlines to sit on the sidelines waiting for less expensive options to emerge.

A Boeing spokesman in July, before the shutdown announcement, declined to comment on the company’s plans for Connexion except to confirm that it had put the brakes on further commercial expansion of the service. Rayl said officials from Rockwell Collins and Connexion had been in contact about once a week at that time and that it was fairly clear even then that Boeing intended to throw in the towel on Connexion.

“We’ve been aware of Connexion by Boeing’s potential shutdown for some time,” Rayl said. “We are a customer through eXchange as well as the network server supplier for Connexion aboard airliners. So we were pretty aware of what was going to happen and what the probabilities were that Connexion would be shut down.”

Business jet buyers, meanwhile, may be understandably wary of opting to install eXchange hardware in light of Boeing’s decision. Bombardier salespeople have been provided with a list of “talking points” for discussion with customers worried about the future of eXchange. Officials with Bombardier admitted they are concerned about the situation and have been keeping in close contact with their counterparts at Rockwell Collins.

The good news for Collins is that no customers have so far canceled orders for eXchange hardware–although some might be delaying a decision to buy until they know more about what will happen next, Rayl conceded. He added that more information will be released in the next month.

Customer Feedback

AIN interviewed pilots who were willing to discuss their experiences with datalink services, but this is not a comprehensive survey of all available services. The messaging users interviewed for this article brought up some positives and negatives about each company, with respondents giving kudos to Arinc and UVdatalink for, respectively, pricing and technology and expressing relief that Honeywell has agreed to license access to the Epic platform to Arinc.

Falcon contract pilot Paul Richardson criticized Honeywell Global Data Center weather data, saying that “weather is often hours old from GDC; [we] may as well not even request updates as we keep getting the same old weather from GDC.” He added that “price is not a major concern, but Arinc is most cost-effective.”

Richardson has used all three services and, commenting on UVdatalink, explained, “I like the acars style of the stored pre-messaging and the format in the CDU, quick, easy to use and cuts down on the typing. In this regard it is the better of the other two systems. I hope more operators will go to it.”

George Liner, chief pilot and aviation director for a company that manages a Challenger 601-3R, switched from GDC to Arinc. “We used GDC for a number of years,” he said, “but it’s gotten like the rest of Honeywell, non-responsive. Suggestions would fall on deaf ears. I’ve been with Arinc for more than two years and if I call with a problem, it’s resolved quickly. They continuously update their products and really listen to pilot-users.”

Liner’s company pays $9,500 a year for the mid-level Arinc package, and he believes that this is less than what he would spend on GDC. “If I was using it the same amount,” he said, “the cost would be significantly lower with Arinc.”

At the Steelcase flight department, director of aviation Glenn Jones urged messaging users to test each of the services, preferably on a trial basis, before making a selection. “Try all providers,” he said, “then make a decision on your own operation.” Steelcase has been able to try different providers because a recently purchased Falcon 2000EX came with a one-year subscription to Honeywell GDC.

Jones said he was disappointed that he could not use Arinc for datalink messaging on the new EASy-equipped 2000EX after the GDC trial period. He is happy that Honeywell and Arinc have finally come to an agreement.

One of the features that Jones likes best about the Arinc service is the Aircraft Performance Group’s runway analysis program. Jones and his colleagues use the program to evaluate regular trips and set up emergency practice scenarios to bring to simulator training sessions.

Jones also uses Arinc’s flight handling and fuel arrangement services. He noted that Arinc’s flight planner includes links to Ac-U-Kwik’s airport and FBO database.