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Wi-Fi Goes Airborne

A just-inked partnership gives airline passengers secure access to their corporate networksand opens possibilities for a broadband pipe to the cockpit.
August 27, 2004

While the title of the punk band Dead Kennedys 1987 album, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death may be a little extreme, people today have gotten pretty bellicose in their demands for service. And one of the areas in which we are most thwarted is in our desire to use the Internet while traveling on planes. Oh sure, we can surf in the airports, but once we set foot in the cabin, the laptops go off and our In Boxes lie fallow.

In May, that changed when Lufthansa Airlines ran the first flights incorporating a new service from Boeing, which allows travelers to wirelessly surf the Internet at broadband speeds. On August 23, another hurdle was cleared: iPass, the wireless connection company that allows users to connect to their corporate networks securely, announced a partnership with Connexion by Boeing–the Boeing subsidiary that is offering the airborne Wi-Fi service. When the first iPass-enabled flights take off in about six months, corporate frequent flyers will be able to access files on their intranets while zipping through the skies at 35,000 feet. Travelers on the limited flights currently offering the service can now use the iPass service to securely log on to corporate networkseven over virtual private networksto complete a presentation, take part in a virtual meeting, or conduct any activity they would normally do sitting in a cube instead of coach. Just before press time, Asiana Airlines announced it had signed an agreement with Connexion; the Seoul, Korea-based airline expects to have some of its fleet equipped by July 2005.

With terrestrial Wi-Fi ramping toward ubiquity, the air travelers disconnect lament has been sounding for some time. So why has it taken so long to start offering the service in planes? There are a number of reasons. Obviously, getting a plane Wi-Fi ready is a lot more difficult than setting up a network in a coffee shop. It took Boeing almost four years of testing to get the airline sign-off and Federal Aviation Administration approval required to debut the service. The last barrier to break was bringing a broadband connectivity solution to the airline that was affordable for passengers and for the airline to equip, says Stan Deal, vice president for network sales at Connexion by Boeing. There had to be a creative business solution, and it took a lot of system engineering.

Heres how it works: A Boeing ground station transmits an Internet connection (from an Internet service provider or a corporate network) through a satellite gateway to a satellite. Boeing rents transponder space on the satellites, which beam the signals to an antenna thats mounted on the outside of the fuselage on the aircraft.

At a time when airlines are announcing new fees for travelers such as paying $15 to speak with a person on the phone when booking a ticket, finally a service emerges that is worth paying for. For $15, travelers can now surf the Internet for the duration of flights lasting less than three hours; $20 covers flights of three to six hours, and $30 will keep you connected on flights of six hours or more. A per-minute pricing plan is also available. Most airlines are in a world of hurt financially, and need to extract as much revenue as possible just to stay viable. These new Wi-Fi services will give them some incremental revenue gains immediately. Boeing estimates that on the current Lufthansa routes offering Wi-Fi connectivity, three percent of passengers sign up. The company expects that by years end, that will reach six percent and rise to 15 to 20 percent within two years.

In addition to these incremental revenue gains, having a broadband pipe in the cabin makes possible substantial cost savings. Currently, the only Internet connectivity available in the cockpit and in the cabin on most planes maxes out at a whopping 9.6 kilobits per second. For comparison, most PCs today ship with 56-kilobit-per-second modems. Boeing is working with airlines to create applications that allow for real time diagnostic monitoring of the plane in flight, which would give pilots the ability to crunch data about the planes status and monitor for problems. Air traffic control could receive streams of real-time data on the planes status as well. Wed also like to use the connection to send satellite maps and weather images to the pilots, says Michael Lamberty, a spokesperson for Lufthansa.

Another application Boeing has created to take advantage of the pipe is in telemedicine. Medical emergenciesor assumed medical emergenciesoccur regularly on planes, usually forcing the plane to make an unscheduled landing. These stops cost the airlines a lot of money, with some estimates running as high as $1 million. Many times the diverted landing is unnecessary. The airlines take a conservative approach today and divert, says Deal. [With the broadband connection] they can increase the amount of vital statistics and give a video image of the patient to a remote doctor, who could potentially avoid diverting the airplane or give proper instructions to help a passenger.

The rollout of Wi-Fi enabled planes will help business and leisure travelers stay in the electronic loop. But the airlines, struggling to stay solvent in a brutal business, may be the biggest beneficiaries of upgrading their offerings. Of course, this connectivity encroachment into the cabin may have an unfortunate byproduct: no more blocking out the working world for a few hours while in flight.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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