Live sports TV proving a hit with Middle Eastern carriers
In the never-ending competition to differentiate their in-flight entertainment (IFE) offerings, many Gulf carriers are now using live sports TV to entice their passengers, as Steve Nichols found out.
Aircraft equipped with Panasonic Avionics’ eXTV satellite service are able to tap into two live sports channels courtesy of a deal between the IFE company and global media specialist IMG.
Panasonic has an exclusive agreement with IMG, as the only aviation provider of the latter’s live Sport24 channel, which was launched in 2012.
IMG describes itself as “a global leader in sports, events, media and fashion, operating in more than 30 countries”. Its Sport24 is the world’s only live 24/7 sports channel for the airline and cruise industries and broadcasts a multitude of events, including Barclays Premier League, Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League soccer, Formula 1 motor racing, major basketball, American football, golf majors, plus the Ryder Cup, and tennis grand slams.
It has access to around 500 live sports feeds from around the world and provided more than 200 hours of coverage from the last Olympics across the 17 days of the competition.
The company says it is responsible for more than 21,000 hours of television and more than 30,000 hours of radio annually.
Sport24 is currently available via Panasonic Avionics’ eXTV on 11 airlines, including Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Gulf Air and Turkish.
More than 90 Emirates Boeing 777 aircraft now have live TV and more aircraft are being equipped every month. In June, the 80th Airbus A380 delivered to Emirates was also the first A380 in the fleet to be fitted with live TV.
David Bruner, vice president, global communications services at Panasonic Avionics, said: “Sport never stops and neither do Panasonic and IMG. The interest worldwide is massive and it was a logical step for us to introduce live sports TV to aircraft.”
Statistics from Panasonic Avionics show around 1.4 million passengers were able to watch the FIFA World Cup via eXTV, with 40,000 alone glued to the final between Argentina and Germany.
According to its figures, around three quarters of one Lufthansa aircraft watched their national team take home the World Cup trophy after winning 1-0.
And sports are universal too. IMG has signed a multi-year agreement with the US National Basketball Association (NBA) to broadcast live NBA games.
In September, ice hockey joined the IMG portfolio, too. The channels will be showing three games a week from the US National Hockey League. Sport24 will broadcast each game in the 2017 Stanley Cup play-offs and the 2017 Stanley Cup final.
But how does IMG decide what to broadcast? Tim Wood, vice president, business development, said its programming “tends to follow the sun”.
“We might start the day with the National Rugby League from Australia in the morning, before moving to tennis from Wimbledon from noon, and then baseball or American football from the US in the evening,” said Wood, a self-confessed sports geek.
“Our programming tends to follow a passenger’s wants and needs – on the whole, passengers want to be entertained during daylight and sleep at night,” he said.
Wood said scheduling can become a nightmare and takes place many weeks in advance.
“When we have a number of events taking place at once, we have to think about what it most popular,” Wood said. “This happened on July 10 – ‘Super Sunday’ – with the final of Euro 2016, the British Grand Prix and the Wimbledon final all taking place at once.”
To cope with demand, IMG launched a second live sports channel for the in-flight market in June to complement Sport24.
The roll-out of Sport24 Extra began on Emirates and Turkish Airlines, with other carriers soon joining them.
Sport24 Extra provides passengers with a choice of live coverage during busy periods in the sporting calendar and also allows the company to re-rerun popular events.
Bruner said: “We’re bringing a constantly improving and evolving in-flight experience. The launch of the Sport24 Extra channel reinforced the importance we place on enhancing the in-flight experience for passengers all over the world through continued innovation.”
IMG says it lives, breathes and sleeps sport. “It sounds like a cliché but sport is in our DNA,” said Wood. “We have years of experience in doing this and we ‘get it’. We know the value of sports globally, and although sometimes we play it down, what we achieve is a technical feat.
“At any one time we could be covering up to 10 Premier League soccer games in parallel.”
And what of the future? “We want to do more live broadcasts and more special programming from niche events,” said Wood.
So how does the programming get to the aircraft?
The finished Sport24 and Sport24 Extra feeds leave IMG’s London headquarters via 2.5Tbps fibre-optic links to Arqiva, in the city, where it is distributed at light speed to 17 satellite teleports worldwide. From these, the signals are uploaded via satellite links to 30 different geostationary Ku-band satellites sitting around 22,300 miles above the equator. Finally, the signals reach the aircraft before being distributed to the passenger’s seat-back eXTV system, even though they may be at 30,000 feet and moving at more than 500mph.
It is the use of Ku-band satellites that enables live TV to be viewed – the microwave Ku-band gives the bandwidth needed.
Inmarsat trialled sending shorter recorded video pieces via its slower L-band SwiftBroadband system (known as SBTV), and even tested it on an Emirates A380, but live TV needs the greater bandwidth of the higher frequency Ku- and Ka-band systems to work.
Inmarsat’s Ka-band GX Aviation system, which is due for global launch by the end of the year, will easily support live TV but, as yet, no details are known as to whether any in-flight programming will include it.
Qatar is known to be a GX customer on its Airbus A350 fleet but, at the time of writing, other Gulf carriers remain tight-lipped about their future in-flight connectivity decisions.
FlyDubai also has Ku-band connectivity, provided by Global Eagle Entertainment on its Boeing 737 fleet. Passengers can enjoy live Arabic and English TV shows, but there are no live sports.
The next generation of Ku-band satellites should enable even more live TV sports material to be broadcast, thanks to their greater bandwidth. So-called high throughput satellites (HTS) use more powerful spot beams. Intelsat already has one of its EpicNG HTS satellites in orbit (Intelsat 29e) and more launches are planned.
Todd Hill, Panasonic Avionics’ senior director GCS satellite service, said that the company’s experience with its eXTV service had proved that Ku-band systems are ideal for streaming TV.
“With the launch of HTS, the economics will get even better,” Hill said. “With HTS spot beams you can use more power over more Megahertz and drive the cost per bit down.
Frederick St-Amour, Global Eagle’s VP of sales, agreed, saying that Ku satellites could provide more economic bandwidth, which makes it a better solution for live TV. He said that with the upcoming HTS services, such as used on Intelsat’s EpicNG satellites for example, there would be the benefits of both wide and spot-beam technology.
“Ku wide beam also has the benefit of letting you use user datagram protocol (UDP) – one directional transmissions to the aircraft – which makes it better suited to streaming TV,” he added.
UDP is a way of streaming data over the internet with minimal error-correcting “handshaking”. This means it can be sent faster, but with the risk of some errors. Applying “checksum” technology to the received packets goes some way to making sure they are correct. With streaming digital TV any error might be seen as a momentary ‘blip’ before the image moves on.
So the future should see more Gulf carriers’ aircraft carrying even more sports TV coverage.