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FCC Approves Airline Internet Service

The Federal Communications Commission Thursday approved Boeing's Connexion service, putting high-speed Internet at the fingertips of flying passengers one step closer to realization.

Connexion by Boeing is to be the quintessential Internet service for frequent business travelers who spend much of their time in the air, offering up to 5 Mbps speeds on flights equipped with the two-way satellite routers to handle the data traffic.

"For the first time in history, air travelers will be able to experience real time, in-flight connectivity comparable to the speeds and quality of service they expect on the ground," said Scott Carson, Connexion by Boeing president of the first-of-its-kind regulator approval.

Regulator approval is one of the best things to happen to the fledgling "airborne Internet service provider" in recent months. Earlier this month, three airlines with equity interest in the Connexion program, Delta , American and United -- were forced to opt out after air travel ground to a virtual halt in the wake of Sept. 11.

The defection of its three U.S. airline customers, which have had to start implementing other cost-cutting measures (like cutting in-flight meals during most domestic flights), will not hamper the scheduled launch of the program, Connexion officials said.

"We were already intending to come forward in the marketplace with our service before our announcement with those three airlines, so we were counting on their investment to continue with the program," said Terrance Scott, a Connexion spokesperson. "The FCC decision is a great momentum builder for us and a great way to end the New Year."

Connexion techs have been conducting "field trials" of the service since mid-2001, though Scott hesitates to call them field trials. "That implies that we're trying to demonstrate that the service works; it's already proven to work, we've equipped Connexion 1 (the flagship Internet-equipped Boeing 737) and have been using the service for months."

Officials had to prove to the FCC that the service did not interfere with other wireless operators using the broadband spectrum, mainly Federal Aviation Administration and military communications. It took a year, but the effort was worth it, in the eyes of Connexion officials.

"This is a tremendous boost for our continued efforts to roll out this service in the United States and, ultimately, around the world," said Karen Gielen, Connexion by Boeing executive director of international regulatory affairs.

With speeds approaching 5 Mbps, the service opens the door to services outside the casual Web surfing and email checking services that many travelers desire today. In the future, officials expect to implement advanced services, such as television and intranet services, to its broadband users.

Early reports suggested the Internet service would be capped at 56Kbps speeds for browsing and email services. Not true, officials say, noting that each Connexion-equipped airplane has 5 Mbps download speeds, which are then broken down by the number of users sharing the service, similar to cable Internet services. The service provides upload speeds up to 1.5 Mbps.

Still a year away from launch, Connexion executives haven't put a price on the hourly premium service, which many expect to be fairly pricey for the common traveler. It's also uncertain how prevalent the service will be on domestic flights around the U.S.

Scott acknowledged the company's original plans to equip 1,500 Delta, American and United aircraft have been abandoned, but wouldn't say by how much. He did reiterate the three airlines' continued faith in the project and said all three are still willing to incorporate the service when launched.