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FAA Certifies Boeing's Broadband Service

Despite losing three of its four customers late last year when airlines started desperately slashing costs, Connexion by Boeing, Boeing's high-speed airborne Internet service, is pushing forward.

On Wednesday, Connexion trumpeted a new milestone: the Federal Aviation Administration certified its airborne communication network.

Connexion began as a joint venture between Boeing, United Airlines , Delta Air Lines , and American Airlines , and Lufthansa. It hit the skids in November 2001 when United, Delta and American pulled out of the joint venture and abandoned plans to equip 1,500 aircraft with the service in the wake of the events of Sept. 11. However, the three airlines said they continue to have faith in the service and said they will incorporate it in their aircraft when it launches. Lufthansa still plans to deploy Connexion's technology in 80 of its aircraft over the next two years.

The Connexion service extends the capabilities of a Network Operations Center (NOC) to a satellite orbiting at about 23,000 miles. Information is uplinked from the NOC to a satellite, which then downlinks the information to an aircraft via an antenna mounted on the fuselage. The antenna remains in constant contact with the satellite, even when the plane is moving at 600 miles per hour. The downlinked information goes to an on-board server and the signal is then routed to individual seats on the aircraft. The service provides download speeds of 5 Mbps, and upload speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps.

The service would give passengers real-time, high-speed Internet and intranet access, television, entertainment and e-mail.

Connexion said Wednesday that its FAA certification grant is the first of its kind for a broadband service linking satellite-based resources and ground networks to commercial aircraft during flight.

A Boeing team, using a Boeing 737-400 dubbed Connexion One, has been conducting testing and data analysis of critical on-board hardware, software, systems and procedures since mid-2001.

"Working closely with FAA officials, our flight test team has completed highly rigorous testing of the components necessary to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to the airlines and their passengers," said Ed Laase, director of System Development for Connexion. "One of the key messages we've heard from airlines around the world is 'you have to have a system that works right the first time -- don't use us as guinea pigs.' We've listened closely and this is why we're certifying and continuing testing on our 737 aircraft to ensure service readiness on day one."

Boeing said the certification process took three months, using Connexion One to verify there was no impact to the structural integrity of the aircraft, interference with onboard systems, or handling. The certification process included a review and analysis of all test data and processes for installing and operating the service equipment.

To drive home the service's readiness, Boeing e-mailed the final test summary paperwork for the certification to FAA officials in Los Angeles using the service while flying 35,000 feet above New Mexico. Boeing said the document and supporting material totaled 800 kilobytes, and were transmitted to FAA officials in real-time in less than 30 seconds.

"We are extremely proud of the way the service has performed and how groups across Boeing have pulled together to make this certification a company-wide success," said Timothy Lemaster, certification program manager for Connexion.

The service received Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval in late December.