Wi-Fi Takes To The Air

Wi-Fi is about to take off.

Later this month, German airline Lufthansa
will launch the first commercial in-flight Wi-Fi Internet access service using
Connexion by Boeing, a product/service
the aircraft maker has been developing and testing for the last two years.

Lufthansa will start small with four aircraft operating on European routes
yet to be decided. It is committed to deploying the Connexion technology on
90 aircraft eventually, though. The two companies have been working on the
project since 2002.

Singapore Airlines will launch
a similar service in early summer, followed later in the year by SAS (Scandinavian Airlines),
Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and China Airlines. The six
airline companies have so far committed to equipping 120 aircraft in all.

Like similar Wi-Fi solutions for trains, Connexion uses satellite for backhaul
— 20 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. Boeing is leasing Ku-band transponder capacity
from more than one satellite service provider, allowing it to offer service
virtually anywhere planes fly.

The one exception: over the North and South poles. Only about 1 percent of
commercial passenger flights go over the poles, though, says Connexion vice
president of strategy and business development Sean Schwinn.

Inside the plane, Connexion can deliver a wired solution with Ethernet jacks
at each seat, or use Wi-Fi to deliver the service.

"Wireless is definitely the preferred solution," Schwinn says.
"Wires are weight, and if a wire is running to a seat, if you decide
to move that seat, you have to move the wire. It’s much more expensive if
you’re reconfiguring the aircraft."

It may seem surprising that Wi-Fi works as an onboard delivery mechanism
when other wireless technologies — notably cell phones — are strictly banned
on aircraft because of the risk that they could interfere with navigational
systems.

"It’s really apples and oranges," Schwinn explains. "[Wi-Fi
and cell phones] work on different frequencies, and a cell phone’s power level
is also about 20 times that of a Wi-Fi client device." (Many question
the prohibition of cell phones in the air anyway, and some European carriers
are even offering phones with "flight mode" available so handset
can be used right through take off.)

Despite the bandwidth in the backhaul and over the Wi-Fi network inside the
plane, the service will only deliver throughput to individual Internet access
subscribers in the 100-to-128-Kbps range — as Schwinn says, "a good
ISDN line."

Boeing recently announced pricing for Connexion. It will offer flat rate
and metered pricing. With the flat rate, which provides unlimited access to
the Internet, passengers pay $29.95 for a long-haul flight (more than six
hours), $19.95 for flights between three and six hours, and $14.95 for flights
of less than three hours.

With the metered pricing option, they get the first 30 minutes for $9.95
and pay $0.25 per minute thereafter.

If the service were offering throughput similar to a terrestrial hotspot,
the prices would be easy to justify. As it is, they may seem a little steep
for a service that is really good for not much more than e-mail and very light
surfing. You can bet, however, that Boeing has based its pricing — and bandwidth
management policies — on extensive market research. Pricing models for hotspots
on the ground probably don’t apply in the air anyway.

"The real proof on user experience for us is how [users] feel about
it," Schwinn says. "More than 90 percent [in our market tests] said
they were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ satisfied with the speed. And these are fairly
sophisticated people."

Boeing may be banking on the fact that if passenger is paying over $1,000
for a long-haul flight, they are unlikely to balk at paying another $30 for
access to e-mail and the rest of the Web — even if it is slow.

Connexion is targeting frequent flyers first, especially corporate business
travelers.

"We’re going after precisely the guy who suffers most from being out
of touch," says Schwinn. "They’re also the customers who pay the
highest yields to the airline. Now, rather than waiting until they land, we
offer these customers a choice to stay in contact as they go."

The company is pursuing partnerships with terrestrial service providers that
will allow their customers to use their ID and password to access the Connexion
service and be billed by their existing service provider.

Connexion has already announced preliminary agreements with T-Systems, the Deutsche Telekom subsidiary
that provides corporate Internet access services, including wireless services,
and StarHub, a Singapore-based service
provider.

Airlines will use Connexion to do more than just provide Internet access
to passengers. The technology can also deliver in-flight airline applications.

One idea being tested is to use the network to connect the aircraft with
on-the-ground medical facilities. They could provide remote diagnoses in the
event a passenger takes ill. Currently, decisions about whether to land or
not are often based on partial information at best.

"If the [passenger’s] situation is serious, you obviously want to get
to the ground as quickly as possible," Schwinn says. "But if you’re
wrong [about it being serious], you just spent a lot of money."

He believes many of the applications built for the technology will relate
to the fact that "these are very expensive assets that spend most of
their working life out of contact." Tracking and mobile telemetry applications
seem like naturals.

Schwinn believes there is also an opportunity for airlines to provide enhanced
customer service using Connexion. For example, in the event of a flight delay,
an onboard system could use the Connexion wireless link to automatically re-book
connecting flights for passengers.

Schwinn believes the improvements airlines can make in customer service by
exploiting Connexion will have an impact similar to what total quality management
(TQM) had in the auto industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Connexion system is also designed to pipe video content to existing in-flight
entertainment (IFE) systems. It will use some of the satellite capacity to
rebroadcast from four to 12 channels of video, which the aircraft can download
as streaming video in MPEG format.

"What we’re focusing on is bringing up live content," Schwinn explains.
"You won’t find us rebroadcasting the History channel. It doesn’t need
to be shown live. We’ll bring up news, sports, financial news — things that
will be fresh."

Some airline IFE systems already include TV content, of course, but it’s
usually pre-recorded, though JetBlue is an exception. It shows satellite based
DireTV channels on its planes.

Singapore Airlines will be the first to launch the Connexion video service.
Others airlines will follow. Schwinn admits that for passengers outside North
America, this kind of live TV content is probably less important.

Given that fact, it’s hard to understand why so much of the available bandwidth
is to be given over to video, apparently at the expense of Internet access
— especially when Schwinn confirms that Internet access is by far the most
important application.

"The research we’ve done confirms that in various other places, Internet
access [is in very high demand]," Schwinn says. "Travelers will
pick hotels, for example, based on availability of high-speed connectivity.
That drives traffic. So, yes, we see connectivity as the killer app."

If it’s the killer app, why not devote more resources to it and boost the
connection speed. Some early users of the on-train Wi-Fi service offered by
the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers
Authority
(CCJPA) in Silicon Valley expressed reservations about the speed
of that service.

"These users like things to be as fast as they can possibly be,"
CCJPA senior planner Jim Allison told us. "So while some are just happy
to have it at any speed, some are saying, ‘Gee, this is great, but why can’t
it be faster?’"

Connexion customers will likely be no different — pleased at first just
to have it, but soon frustrated by the slow speed.

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