In-flight Web, phone calls draws closer

On Monday, a provider of in-flight Internet access will move a step closer to delivering a system that may someday let airline passengers make calls from their own mobile phones.

Connexion by Boeing, a mobile information service provider that is a division of The Boeing company, will announce its choice of vendors for the Wi-Fi access points it will start deploying in airliners next year. The company will use the Wireless Access Service Point (WASP) from Miltope, a rugged device specially designed for planes and based on the Colubris Networks CN1054 access device. The planes will be connected to the Internet via satellite at 20M bps (bits per second) downstream and 1M bps upstream.

Though that system as deployed next year will be designed for wireless data, with no provisions for ensuring the quality of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Connexion is looking toward VoIP as a way to offer voice service on board, vice-president of global network sales at Connexion, Stan Deal.

"We see voice as a formal offering as part of our service evolution, subject to clearing the regulatory approval," Deal said.

That offering may appear as early as 2005.

Making calls on cell phones had been banned on planes because it used frequencies that could interfere with navigation systems on planes, Deal said.

Connexion was now exploring two possible systems for allowing voice calls from mobile phones while in flight. Over a wireless LAN, passengers could use Wi-Fi VOIP phones, which were available from Cisco Systems and other vendors.

Dual-mode phones with both Wi-Fi and cellular capability, also on the way from several vendors, could allow travellers to carry just one phone.

Alternatively, Connexion by Boeing might install a special "picocell," a small, airplane-safe version of the cells found on towers on the ground, to serve passengers on the plane, who would use conventional cell phones.

The picocell would have a gateway to convert the calls to VOIP and send them over the satellite uplink, he said.

Regulation of VoIP carriers was now being studied by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Connexion had a team in Washington, DC., watching that process, Deal said.

The company would also have to figure out how to ensure good enough quality of service for phone calls, because IP networks were designed primarily for data.

Voice was more sensitive to delays than data traffic.

The Miltope devices, which include integrated 10/100M bps Ethernet ports, would allow airlines to hook up a server that would deliver special content to passengers over the LAN, senior director at Miltope, Bob Guidetti, said.

In addition to passenger services, the access points might be used by the airline for downloading and uploading information while the plane was at the terminal.

The WASP also includes an integrated virtual private network (VPN) server, a firewall with packet filtering and hardware-assisted data encryption, as well as user authentication via a separate server using IP Security (IPSec), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP).

Several access points may be deployed to cover a large plane - as many as five in a Boeing 747, director of product marketing at Colubris, Carl Blume, said.

Rolling out a full-featured access point such as Miltope's is probably a good strategy in these early days, according to IDC analyst Abner Germanow.

"The key at this point in the game is not efficiency but flexibility," Germanow said. "You may not really be sure how the applications running over these networks will evolve."

For example, some hotels that deployed wireless LANs for guest use have found internal uses for them, such as giving wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) to employees who move around the premises.

Similarly, airlines might find the wireless LANs useful for baggage handlers, caterers or other people who work around the planes, he said. Miltope is starting out by delivering 11M bps WASPs that use IEEE 802.11b technology.

Next year it would provide Connexion with its upgraded product, which would support 802.11g and 802.11a, both of which were designed for a maximum 54M bps carrying capacity, Guidetti said.

Connexion already has deals with several airlines, including Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines Systems and Japan Airlines, to offer in-flight Internet services via wireless LANs.

Miltope last year began offering its devices for use on corporate jets and since then has seen many deployed on them, Guidetti said. Connexion expects to offer Internet access priced from about $US15 for short-haul domestic flights to about $US30 for a long-haul trip.

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