Plug In, Take Off

by William C. Gillis

IMAGINE BEING ABLE to plug in your laptop on your next flight, connect to the Internet, and stay working. The idea’s not so far-fetched. In June, American, Delta, and United Airlines, along with airplane-maker Boeing, announced a partnership to offer broadband Internet service to air travelers.

Connexion by Boeing plans to introduce broadband service on roughly 1,500 aircraft owned by American, Delta, and United. Passengers should expect to pay about $20 an hour for the service, with connection speeds ranging from 56Kbps to T1-line speeds, depending on the number of passengers connected and other factors. Connectivity will be made possible by antennas designed to communicate with satellites already in orbit.

At a press conference in June announcing the agreement, James A. Beer, an American Airlines vice president, stressed the value of in-flight Internet access to businesspeople. “This will allow them to see air travel as an extension of their office,” Beer said. “We don’t plan to let seven miles of thin air stand in the way.”

Unfortunately, business travelers and the rest of the air-traveling public will have to wait before high-speed Internet access is available on most U.S. flights. Connexion service should debut on aircraft in about a year, in a “prototype” stage on 30 planes. If the prototype is successful, Connexion and its partners expect it will take about five years to complete installation of the service on the rest of the aircraft earmarked for it.

The initial rollout is also only targeted for the continental U.S., as Boeing and its three partners work out licensing and satellite-access issues for foreign flights. Connexion service will not be available on trans-Atlantic flights until the end of 2002 at the very earliest.

Not all international travelers will be shut off from Internet access in the meantime, however. Seattle-based Tenzing Communications is planning on a broadband service similar to Connexion’s. In the meantime, the company is offering slower narrowband service on airlines outside the U.S. Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic have all begun introducing Tenzing narrowband service on their flights.

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