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The sky's no longer the limit

Wed, 02/28/2001 - 7:00pm
Angela Langowski, Associate Editor


An example of users connecting to the Internet
using Tenzing ISP technology.

Whether flying internationally or on a short trip, airline passengers face a unique challenge: staying confined in a small seat for hours. And although many people bring diversions to pass the time, most expect the airline to entertain them. Conversely, airlines want to be able to provide the capability for serious business travelers to continue to do business on airline flights. The promise of in-flight connectivity will soon be able to help with these problems. Several airlines, including Cathay Pacific, Air Canada, and Singapore Airlines, are working with companies like Tenzing Communications to start bringing services like an Internet connection, e-mail and streaming video and audio to their passengers. The signs that these kinds of services will be offered by more airlines are promising.

Boeing has created "Connexion by Boeing" which the company hopes to use to provide high-speed data communication services via a satellite-based network for about the same price as cellular phone service, according to the company. Other companies also vying for airline and passenger dollars include In-Flight Network, inflightonline, and 2netFX and Avolo. While the companies all have the same objective in mind–to help provide in-flight connectivity including access to the Internet and e-mail to passengers–the technology they use for doing it varies.

Connectivity via satellite

In-Flight Network (IFN), a joint venture of telecommunications giant News Corporation and aerospace firm Rockwell Collins, hopes its broadband Internet access, which will include e-mail service, and streaming video of live television, is ready to take off by the end of this year. Last September, the company unveiled its system in Southern California with a live air-to-ground demonstration. The demonstration included a prototype that was flown and operated over parts of North America. Passengers who were on the flight were able to access Web sites and other online services using standard laptop PCs and browsers.

"The results of the air-to-ground demonstrations in September were positive," says Jeffrey Wales, CEO of IFN and SVP of News Corp. "A lot of people had a first-hand impression of what (the prototype) could do and the effect of having a transparent IP to the aircraft. There's still a lot of confusion in this whole field about what the communications requirement is in order to have a viable business model."

IFN is differentiating itself from its competitors by providing a transparent IP pipe to the aircraft that brings the terrestrial Internet to the plane just the way it is on the ground, says Wales.

IFN architects its system using forward channel satellite capacity commercially available from Ku band satellites to distribute mostly packaged and produced content. The company uses a combination of commercially available satellite and broadcast television, ground-based wireless and on-board digital content servers to transform each IFN affiliate aircraft into the equivalent of a local terrestrial cable system. The company also uses low earth orbit (LEO) satellites and is getting a bi-directional return channel from Globalstar.


Diagram of how passengers connect to the Internet
on an airplane.

Source: Tenzing Communications.

The airplane is equipped with satellite antennas and a server to cache data and to act as the intermediate processing agent between the rest of the world and the aircraft. Laptop PCs, PDAs, and other commercially available Internet appliances can be connected to IFN's on-board Internet access and e-mail system by using either an IFN PCMCIA card-based wireless link, existing on-board wired connections, or even, potentially, a wireless system. Because of the way the network is set up, spectrum is allocated dynamically because the system is packet switched.

"Accessing e-mail on (passengers') own corporate network is a fundamental difference between what we're doing here and what other people in the field are doing," says Wales.

The system won't require flight attendants to become computer experts in addition to their regular duties as suitcase stuffers, food servers, baby wranglers and bartenders. IFN's system is a real-time system that is monitored on the ground just like a satellite broadcasting system.

"We're in direct, real-time contact with all the servers in all the aircraft in the world, at all times they are in the air," says Wales.

IFN is in negotiations with most of the world's leading airlines, says Wales, but the company is prohibited in naming the airlines while they are in the negotiation process.

The cost of the IFN service likely will match other Internet providers on the ground and will be charged on a subscription basis, says Wales.

The company's business model offers affiliate airlines revenue sharing opportunities. IFN envisions the partnership to be similar to a TV network affiliation model with the choice of either revenue sharing or equity participation.

Meanwhile, Boeing Co. is developing a global communications network of its own, and is also discussing network alliances with carriers. Like IFN, Connexion by Boeing will provide an array of high-speed data communication services via a space-based network the company hopes to launch later this year.

Boeing's system uses the Ku band fixed satellite frequency range of 12 GHz to 14 GHz. The system will differ from in-flight entertainment (IFE) system suppliers and component suppliers by providing two-way live data and live TV service to highly mobile users, according to the company. Connexion by Boeing offers two-way broadband Internet, live TV, two-way company Intranet access, e-commerce, flight-specific information and crew information services to the airlines. The airborne network is capable of receiving data at 20 megabits per second downstream and 1.5 Mbps upstream.

The company's service infrastructure includes an airborne system consisting of airborne antennas, airborne servers, routers and wiring; a ground system consisting of a network operations center, associated satellite uplink and downlink equipment and business operation center; and a space system consisting of leased satellite transponders.

Boeing's proprietary phased array receive and transmit antennas are designed to steer signals electronically, allowing instantaneous and continuous connections between commercial satellites and airplanes.

While anticipated revenues for Boeing's Connexion service have not been announced, analysts project the program's addressable market to be about $70 billion over the next 10 years, according to the company. The system is already available for installation on private business jets today and will be available on commercial aircraft shortly, according to the company.

The ISP route

Tenzing Communications Inc., a global ISP offering travelers in-flight access to Web content and e-mail, recently signed an agreement with Hughes Global Services Inc. to help with that effort. The company is testing its software with GTE AirFone and is working with Cathay Pacific Airways, Air Canada and Singapore Airlines. The company has hired a number of aerospace and technical employees from Boeing, Primex and Rockwell.

The company was formed in 1999 and got its name from Tenzing Norgay, who was the Sherpa that went with Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mount Everest in 1953. Not unlike a Sherpa, Tenzing's corporate mission is to provide Internet access at high altitudes, says Peter Lemme, the company's VP of technology.

Tenzing is a systems integrator for the airlines. The company works with the airline to get an agreement to fit the airplanes with equipment. The company recommends to the airline appropriate equipment that the airline then buys. The simplest version of Tenzing's service interfaces with existing in-flight phone systems.

Tenzing's Air Canada system works with the airline's onboard phones. The airline also has a Miltope server which Tenzing's software works on.

Cathay Pacific, which was Tenzing's first airline customer, doesn't use the onboard telephone network to operate its system. The airline is using Primax computers on its planes. Passengers plug their laptops into a USB connection at their seats and get a 12 Mbps connection.

E-mail is sent to airplanes via ground transmitters or, if the planes are over an ocean, by satellites. Messages are sorted by an onboard computer server, then routed to passengers.

Inmarsat provides Tenzing's satellite communications. Tenzing is running circuit-switched 2,400 Mbps service. The company will introduce 64 kilobit circuit-switched services and also 64 kilobit packet-switched services sometime this year to help drive down its price points. Enabling this speed also allows the company to introduce other features including virtual private networks (VPN), e-mail browsing and some live Internet browsing. Current connection speeds are expected to be the equivalent of a 56K modem.

Later this year, the company will trial a system using Ku band broadcast technology. The agreement with Hughes will help with this trial.

Tenzing's system requires users to modify their computers by downloading a dialer application that allows them to dial into the online network. The company won't disclose the pricing, but said it won't start billing for these services until this August, says Lemme. Typical pricing plans would include offering everyone onboard the airplane free access to the airplane's Web cache; the next level of service would charge for 24-hour access to the passenger's e-mail. This tier of service would also include access to Tenzing's global roaming service, which is a dial-up ISP service.

Once the airline decides which technology to use, the downtime to install the server and necessary equipment to get the network running doesn't take very long, and can be done along with the plane's regular maintenance, says Lemme.

"We are so independent of the technology," says Lemme. "We've done everything we can to not forge any exclusive or preferred relationship with the hardware suppliers or the service providers. It was important for Tenzing to remain as independent as possible from the underlying technology."

The system is monitored from a ground control system in Seattle. If something goes wrong with the system onboard, a passenger can place a free phone call to Tenzing's customer care. The company's use of a Linux OS on the server should prevent system difficulties, says Lemme.

Content another connectivity key

inflightonline has been developing a system to offer complete Internet services to airline passengers with laptop computers for the last several years. The company's software and data management system is platform independent, meaning it accelerates content delivery to the user and enhances bandwidth capabilities on any hardware communication and distribution system.

The company has signed agreements with more than 50 companies to market their Web sites onboard airplanes, including Lycos, Fidelity Investments, Lands' End, Hertz and others to provide a variety of sites to passengers.

While there is competition among companies over the many hardware applications associated with bringing in-flight Internet services to commercial airplanes, inflightonline bills itself as one of the first companies to focus on the content portion of these services, according to the company. The company has focused on just providing software and content management and partnering with hardware providers to build the rest of the IFE system.

The company has partnerships with the Web sites and often redesigns each Web site for airlines. The company's software updates the sites and also assists in e-commerce transactions when someone wants to purchase something.

inflightonline also works as a systems integrator for smaller airlines, helping the airlines work with other suppliers to purchase hardware components.

The company's process includes disassembling the ground version of the Web site and then rebuilding it in a database that is stored onboard. The database is updated continually to keep it in sync with the ground version of the site. The company calls it "rehosting."

Bruner

"We are simply the AOL, the Yahoo of the air," says David Bruner, president and COO of inflightonline. "The big thing we see missing in the marketplace today is everybody talks about what could be done–nobody talks about how it's going to be affordable to do."

The company is working with corporations and is in negotiations with commercial airlines.

Two other companies looking to get a piece of the IFE business include Avolo and 2netFX. The two companies are partnering to stream high-definition and DVD-quality video via satellite to airlines. Avolo is a provider of aviation applications, and 2netFX is a provider of streaming solutions. The companies are deciding on the type of technology they will use to make this possible, including using wired or wireless LAN technology.

Reed

"Once this is in place, we can open it up to other services, including e-mail," says Bill Reed, VP of sales and marketing for 2netFX.

Will in-flight connectivity take off?

The benefits of airborne Internet service are bound to be felt by those in the air and on the ground. While several companies like Boeing and In-Flight Network are perfecting the technology to be able to offer Internet capabilities like e-mail and streaming video, other companies like Tenzing and inflightonline are working as systems and content aggregators. Except for Tenzing's technology being used on a handful of airlines, it remains to be seen how many more airlines will utilize this technology in the next year.

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