If Scott Carson gets his way, the announcement “We have reached surfing altitude” might soon be as familiar to air travellers 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 Company in 2000 to deliver broadband Internet to aircraft. He and his team have travelled the world in the past 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 this week when Germany’s Lufthansa begins offering it on flights between Europe and the US.
Three more airlines are planning to start service this year — Scandinavian Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines — and at least another four have signed agreements.
“It’s the right idea at the right time,”Carson said. “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 email 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 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 log on 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 $US19.95 for flights of between three and six hours or $US29.95 for flights of six hours or more, or metered pricing, at $US9.95 for 30 minutes and $US0.20 per subsequent minute.
Email 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 300Kbps, 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 said it wasn’t blocking any ports and users should be able to do just about anything. The company realised 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 websites. Boeing decided that passengers were unlikely to visit objectionable websites 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 could support a downstream 5Mbps data channel, and Boeing envisaged one being used initially for passenger Internet access, vice-president of Connexion by Boeing, Stan Deal, said.
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 1Mbps.
Four earth stations — in Japan, Russia, Switzerland and the US — 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. The system is mounted in the top of the cabin above the roof.
Intrusion in the air
The long, thin antenna was curved like a parabolic satellite dish and motors constantly adjusted its position so that it remained pointing at the satellite during the flight, Deal said.
Whether the service was a success might not be a question of technology or price.
Aircraft cabins are one of the few places a busy traveller can get away from phones, email and instant messages, so some might resent the intrusion of the Internet in the air.
Boeing’s market research found up to 6 per cent of people surveyed would change their flight plans, within a certain set of limits, to get on board an aircraft that had the system, sales director at Connexion by Boeing, Michael Carson, said.
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 is one such airline offering the service. It charges
$US9.95 per flight plus $US0.60 per 1KB message or $US19.95 for the entire flight. The service offers access to POP3 email boxes and Web-based email from services such as Yahoo and Hotmail. But corporate accounts that require VPN connections to access or secure passwords are not supported.