AHEAD OF THE CURVE: We have reached surfing altitude

AHEAD OF THE CURVE: We have reached surfing altitude

I know I have plenty of company among business travellers when I dream about opening my notebook, launching my browser, and working like I’m back in the office.

So much of the information we use in our work exists only online. I bring along my PowerBook to get work done, but I rarely get far in a project before I need some kernel of data that isn’t on my hard drive. I thank my stars for the GPRS data service I get through T-Mobile USA and Nokia, but it does me no good in the air.

Fortunately, The Boeing Company will start filling in the gap this spring with its Connexion in-flight Internet service. The user experience is similar to that delivered by carrier-operated hotspots. Your first Web access redirects you to a registration portal. You identify yourself, choose your method of payment, and you’re on the air (so to speak).

For anyone in IT, the technology is easy to understand. Boeing retrofits a ku band satellite transponder to the top of the aircraft’s fuselage. The transponder is linked to an onboard equipment rack that satisfies routing, quality of service, security, and other common needs. The satellite network streams up to 20Mb per second to each plane; equipment in the rack divides the bandwidth among users. The upstream data rate is paltry, as low as 80 to 128Kbps per user, but that’s an unavoidable consequence of satellite technology.

Equipping flyers with connectivity (at a target price of about $US30 per flight) is only the initial use of real-time aircraft connectivity. Current air-to-ground communication capabilities of modern passenger jets are pitiful. If you read the list of potential basic services that carriers gain from Connexion, such as radioing ahead to reschedule passengers who will miss connecting flights, you’ll wonder how carriers have managed without.

Getting Connexion off the ground wasn’t much of an engineering challenge. The system uses leased ground stations and the satellites that carry small-dish satellite TV (for instance, DirecTV and Dish Network in the US). Boeing can retrofit the hardware on an existing plane in about six days.

However, regulatory hurdles were a major problem. A transcontinental flight passes over many sovereign territories, each with its own communications regulations. With the painful drop in passenger traffic after September 11, Boeing found that airlines weren’t interested in spending millions of dollars equipping themselves for Internet access. They were just trying to stay one dollar ahead of bankruptcy. But that crisis didn’t affect foreign carriers, so Boeing’s largest commitments are coming from airlines in Europe and Asia. If there is a risk associated with this service, it is that passengers will construe real-time connectivity as a safety advantage. Boeing has tested safety as an application, recently simulating a ground-assisted medical emergency. Another simulation equipped flight attendants with panic buttons that activated in-cabin cameras, sending live video to ground personnel.

The prospects for safety are promising, but it will take years of testing and validation in non-critical scenarios before Connexion can play a role in that area.

Soon, we’ll enjoy the luxury of Internet-connected aircraft. If I could give up my seat on a convenient flight for one on a less-convenient route with wireless Internet, I’d switch. Would you?

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