Broadband Internet takes to the skies

If Scott Carson gets his way, the announcement "We have reached surfing altitude" might soon be as familiar to air travelers as safety demonstrations, packs of peanuts and stowing the tray in the upright and locked position.

Carson is CEO of Connexion by Boeing, a company formed by The Boeing Co. in 2000 to deliver broadband Internet to aircraft. He and his team have traveled the world in the last year demonstrating the system to airline customers and they're about to see the first fruits of their work. The service is ready to enter commercial service next week when Germany's Lufthansa begins offering it on flights between Europe and the U.S. Three more airlines are planning to start service this year; Scandinavian Airline Systems and Japan's All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines (JAL); and at least another four have signed agreements.

For its part, Qantas is definitely considering providing broadband to in-flight customers. They are currently in the process of evaluating suppliers, including Connexion, and a decision will be made some time this year, said a company spokesperon.

"It's the right idea at the right time," said Carson during an interview in Tokyo. "Connexion by Boeing gives (passengers) a lot of choice about how they spend that time (on board), whether it be listening to music, surfing the 'Net, communicating through instant message or e-mail or, if they are part of a corporate structure, going through the firewall and accessing their network."

If Boeing can deliver on that promise, it will be a considerable advance over today's slow and expensive air-phone service, but how well can satellite-fed broadband work? To answer that question Boeing invited several journalists and customers on a test flight in April from Tokyo's Haneda airport.

Getting connected was easy. The aircraft had an option of wired or 802.11b wireless LAN (WLAN). Like many other commercial WLAN services, a logon screen appears in the Web browser once connected. It asks for some personal information to create an account and offered one of several pricing options.

Boeing is selling the service directly to passengers and offers either flat-rate pricing, at US$19.95 for flights of between three and six hours or US$29.95 for flights of six hours or more, or metered pricing, at US$9.95 for 30 minutes and 20 cents per subsequent minute.

On a recent flight, e-mail access was smooth and browsing the Web proved no problem at what seemed like an acceptable speed. Streaming radio worked without a problem as well as watching video-on-demand news reports, albeit with a little buffering on the higher-bandwidth streams.

To try to tax the system, a large file transfer tested the sustained throughput and navigated to the Japan download page for the Opera Web browser. The network responded well and the data throughput was around 300K bit/sec, which meant a user was getting about one-fifteenth of the shared connection bandwidth, which seemed about right for the number of people onboard.

Boeing says it isn't blocking any ports and users should be able to do just about anything.

"We are not putting any restrictions on use," Carson says. The company realized that blocking and filtering traffic would inevitably lead to some specific corporate applications not working and could hurt the image of the service. VPNs also are supported.

Users also won't find any blocking or censoring of Web sites. The company decided -- aside from the added complexity filtering would bring -- that passengers are unlikely to visit objectionable Web sites in an aircraft, where other passengers can look over their shoulders.

The backbone of the system is a network of transponders leased across eight commercial satellites that provides coverage of most major air routes in the Northern Hemisphere. Each transponder can support a downstream 5M bit/sec data channel, and Boeing envisages one being used initially for passenger Internet access, says Stan Deal, vice president of Connexion by Boeing.

There are plans for a second stream to carry live television, such as 24-hour news, sports and financial channels, and a channel for airline use, such as sending real-time telemetry, maintenance information and intracompany communications. Additional Internet data channels also can be added to keep up with demand. The upstream channel off the aircraft will be 1M bit/sec.

Four earth stations, in Japan, Russia, Switzerland and the U.S., provide the gateway link between the aircraft and a terrestrial network provided by Internap Network Services that carries traffic to the Internet.

The connection to the satellite from the aircraft is accomplished using an antenna designed by Mitsubishi Electric. The system is mounted in the top of the cabin above the roof. The long, thin antenna is curved like a parabolic satellite dish and motors constantly adjust its position so that it remains pointing at the satellite during the flight, Deal says.

Whether the service is a success might not be a question of technology or price. Aircraft cabins are one of the few places a busy traveler can get away from phones, e-mail and instant messages, so some might resent the intrusion of the Internet in the air.

"My reaction is that US$30 per flight is a bit too expensive for missing half a day's connection, which is often valuable time to do other things," said Izumi Aizu, principal of Tokyo's Asia Network Research and an adviser to governments on Internet issues. "I will use it if it's integrated with business-class services, free-of-charge, or only when I have a really urgent need to send and receive messages."

Not all of the prospective audience appears to be such a hard sell.

"I would use it," said Joi Ito, a venture capitalist in Tokyo and frequent traveler. Ito runs a blog that he often updates just before and after taking flights. "The pricing is fine, and I'd probably pay up to US$50 or so for it. I would route my flights just to get such a plane."

Boeing's market research found up to 6 percent of people surveyed would change their flight plans, within a certain set of limits, to get on board an aircraft that has the system, says Michael Carson, sales director at Connexion by Boeing.

Boeing's system isn't the only one focused on passengers on aircraft. Tenzing Communications offers a store-and-forward service based on an on-board server and the seat-back phones in many aircraft. Cathay Pacific Airways is one such airline offering the service, and charges US$9.95 per flight plus US$0.60 per 1K-byte message or US$19.95 for the entire flight. The service offers access to POP3 e-mail boxes and Web-based e-mail from services such as Yahoo and Hotmail. But corporate accounts that require VPN connections to access or secure passwords are not supported.

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