FEATURE: In-flight wireless' growing momentum

In-flight wireless' growing momentum

By J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D.  VP & Chief Analyst for Mobile & Wireless at Frost & Sullivan.

In 2005, Lufthansa announced with great fanfare that it was providing WiFi on flights from Germany to the U.S. for a per-flight charge of $29.95. I remember using it on a flight back from Munich. While I had to do some fiddling with the network settings, I finally got it to work, although there was clearly some latency on each website request. When I hit Enter after naming the website, there was a noticeable delay of around 3-5 seconds and then the browser would begin to download the page similar to how it works in a public hotspot. I was even able to make a call using Skype to a business associate, although the jet engine noise resulted in a call that was difficult to hear. 

The Lufthansa WiFi network was supplied by Connexion, a Boeing subsidiary. There were claims that "everyone would someday be able to fire up their notebook on any airline flight and get WiFi access to the Internet."  Last fall, Lufthansa shut down the service and Boeing shut down Connexion. Great proclamations of wireless access on every flight suddenly disappeared. 

What happened? And, why are we now seeing resurgence in companies that want to offer WiFi and cell phone service on most domestic U.S. flights? I recently moderated a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show that addressed the topic of wireless on airplanes. I learned a lot about where wireless on airline flights is going.  Here's the inside story.

The fundamental problem with Lufthansa's Connexion-supplied solution was the capital cost of more than $1 million to create the network connection to the plane. Not only that, the antenna and on-board systems took up a great deal of space.  It didn't make any economic sense. The flights generated perhaps a few hundred dollars in usage fees but the cost was 10 times that or more.

Last year, the FCC held an auction to license spectrum for the purpose of conducting a low-cost wireless link to airplanes using cellular technology. The idea is really quite simple: design new antennas that would focus on a narrow beam of cellular wireless data directly to the plane. The antenna to receive and transmit such a signal would be small and the total cost to outfit an airplane--either commercial or private--would be around $100,000 or less than one-tenth of the cost before. A young company called AirCell bid $30 million for the spectrum license and is now developing systems that will begin in-flight service in early 2008. 

Here's the way it's going to work:

The ground system will communicate with the planes flying over head. On board the plane, a simple "hub" is created that can provide WiFi to the passengers as well as a microcell that provides support for both CDMA and GSM phone technology in the plane.  Thus, anyone on a Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile handset will be able to use their cell phone on the plane. It will actually be much safer than using your cell phone during current flights because the micro-cell will focus the cell signal and use much less power. 

The plan is to provide WiFi service at about the price you'd pay in commercial hotspots or around $10 per flight and cell phone service for less than you'd pay when roaming internationally or under $1.00 per minute. I expect to see Business Class fliers being given access codes and sponsors looking to gain some advertising benefit for providing free WiFi access on some flights. 

Right now, AirCell's focus is domestic U.S. coverage and the ground-to-air link uses 1xEV-DO, but there's no reason why the technology can't be extended to 3G technology or even WiMAX in some markets. And, what about cross-Atlantic flights where there are no cellular base stations? Satellite links can be used for high-speed downlinks and other longer range radios used for slower speed requests. It might be costly in those situations to transmit an 8MB powerpoint slide presentation attached to an email, but at least you'd be able to read your email perhaps with a filter turned on to only download the smaller emails until after you land. 

I see the biggest hurdle on cell phones being the social non-acceptance for people talking loud on their phone when someone next to them is trying to take a nap. We had to go through social readjustment in restaurants where today there is tremendous courtesy extended to other patrons.

Another challenge is to filter out the background noise. We hope handset manufacturers will work to include advanced filters so that you can hear the person on the ground and they can hear you. 

There is definitely resurgence in in-flight wireless among vendors and consumers. In the year ahead we will start to see these types of services offered commercially, both on domestic and international flights.