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February 26, 2016

In-Flight Mobile Roaming to be Major Part of Roaming Revenue

A flight can represent a great opportunity to get some work done. A long time spent in an enclosed space is tailor-made for hopping online and checking email, or even just catching up on a Netflix, YouTube, or any other online video backlog. That means a clear demand for in-flight roaming, and a new report from Juniper Research says that in-flight mobile roaming will be a hefty part of the total international roaming revenue profile by just 2020.

The Juniper Research report—titled “Mobile Roaming: Regulations, Opportunities & Emerging Sectors 2015 – 2020”—projected that in-flight mobile roaming would mean $3 billion in revenue by 2020. That number would in turn be five percent of the total international roaming market, and too big a chunk to readily ignore.

Juniper Research projects that this big slice of revenue will be attained by several factors; not only do more travelers want access by whatever means available, but price reductions and increased data speeds—2.5G, 3G and 4G—all combine to make the offerings more attractive even for those who were prepared to spend a flight offline. AeroMobile alone reported a 56 percent increase in passengers using in-flight roaming in the first half of 2015 as compared to the first half of 2014.

Prices can be absolutely massive, however, and with improvement here the rates would likely only climb. Vodafone NZ, for example, charges $2.30 per minute for a voice call, but offers data access at $13 per megabyte. Vodafone UK, meanwhile, offers better but still horrific pricing: $5 per megabyte for the first five megabytes, then $27 per five megabytes. It loses on voice calls, however, charging $3 per minute. The biggest problem here is that, for the most part, in-flight bandwidth has to go through a satellite, and that's an expensive, highly limited proposition. Just ask anyone who's had satellite Internet.

With that last in mind, there's a point that may well render this all moot: Google's Project Skybender. While many have considered its use in terms of spreading the availability of terrestrial Internet access, one point that may not have been so frequently considered is the impact this might have on in-flight access. We know the demand is there; the climbing usage numbers make that much clear to anyone who's looking. What isn't so readily available is the actual access, and that's where Project Skybender can kick in. If it goes as far as some project it might, how hard would it be for planes to add a small antenna hooked to a router in the plane that can deliver Project Skybender access?

It may not be that simple in practice, but it would certainly beat the satellite-based access available now. With demand clearly in place, only supply remains to be improved. That may be a closer development than we think, and in turn, may well turn air travel into just another day on the Internet.


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