Can Flying ISPs Take Off?

“Attention Web surfers…this is your captain speaking. Looks like we will be arriving in Paris about 1/2 hour late. I recommend that you go online to readjust your town car reservations. Also, don’t forget to fill up your flying carts with our latest online duty-free selections…”

You are probably saying right now: “What in the NET is he talking about?”

Apparently, if some of Boeing’s Internet/Aircraft executives have their way, the above announcement could be coming to an airplane near you later this year as you take off on the information runway in real-time.

Boeing’s “Connexion by Boeing” service will offer a host of layered services for the travelers ranging from surfing the web and sending emails in real-time to taking advantage of the system’s e-commerce applications.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had access to a warehouse of duty free merchandise and be able to shop online for wider variety of materials and have it waiting for you when you get off the plane,” says Connexion by Boeing Director of Media Relations Terrance Scott.

Another Seattle-based company, Tenzing, has already introduced narrowband cached Internet and email cabalilities earlier this year and is currently running beta tests for select business class passengers on such airlines as Canada Air, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines. Virgin Atlantic, the latest airline to join Tenzing’s test drive (or test flight to be more exact) is offering Tenzing’s services to all passengers. Tenzing plans on eventually offering a broadband option too.

Back at Boeing’s Connexion offices in Seattle and Irvine, the focus is strictly on broadband and real-time capabilities. The company’s one-year old Connexion division is going full speed ahead with its plan to roll out its service later this year. The service should be ready for installation on commercial aircraft in continental U.S. in wither late 2001 or early 2002 and be ready for global rollout by 2005.

According to Scott, Boeing is currently operating a prototype of their service on 11 business jets, including the Boeing business jet that flies Boeing CEO Phil Condit across the continetal U.S.

Scott notes that the Boeing CEO is one of the biggest advocates for the Connexion by Boeing service. “He frequently tells the tale of how he spent greater than 70 full working days in the air last year,” says Scott.

And how does a flying ISP actually take off?

According to Scott, Boeing has extended the capability of a Network Operations Center (NOC) through Satellite-based communications. The information is uplinked from the NOC to a satellite that is approximately 23,000 miles up. Then it is downlinked from the satellite directly to the aircraft via an attena that is mounted on the fuseulage of the aircraft. That attenta remains in constant contact with the satellite even when the plane is moving at 600 miles per hour. The downlink goes to an on-board server and the signal is routed to individual seats on the aircraft.

While, Boeing’s CEO and the other 10 executives that are currently using Boeing’s system can afford the benefits of in-flight broadband connectivity, Tenzing Executive Vice President of Strategic Alliances John Wade, believes that at the end of the flight it will come down to price.

“People do not think of Internet content as something they pay for…that is why cache has a great value proposition,” says Wade. Wade believes that passengers should be given the option to use a service that is relatively cheap (even free), or if they want to do something very specific they can then have the option to pay for it.

According to Wade, Airlines too will have to make a price decision. “An Airline can go with a full-broadband service…or the airline can begin with a much cheaper system featuring proxy email and free -cached Web,” says Wade. caught up with Forrester Research Senior Analyst Henry Harteveldt at the airport in between flights in Denver.

According to Harteveldt, consumers will need to manage their expectations and airlines will need to evaluate how they can recoup the costs involved. For example, what kind of revenue sharing can take place between the airlines and the flying ISP’s. Harteveldt believes that Internet access on airplanes is exciting…however, it will serve mainly as personal entertainment.

“Most business travelers view the airplane cabin as sacred and will not rush to make themselves available during their flights. Just like the in-flight telephones, business people will use the Internet access for “moments of need.”

Whether, Airlines will opt for real-time broadband capabilities or narrowband cached capabilities, remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, things should be heating up this Summer when Boeing’s rival Airbus plans on announcing its version of an Internet system at the Paris Air show in June. Apparently their system will include both broadband and narrowband capabilities.

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