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Mobile Trends: In-flight Net options cleared for take off

While access to e-mail and other Internet services on commercial airlines was once impossible, technology is now making in-flight connectivity convenient and affordable.

Not long ago, flying on a commercial airliner meant spending hours out of touch with the outside world, time that could have been spent more productively with the help of e-mail and instant messaging. However, today's in-flight Internet access options are better and cheaper, with even more advanced options -- including Wi-Fi -- just over the horizon.

There are two major players in the in-flight connectivity market today: Verizon Airfone Inc., which offers a service called JetConnect in conjunction with technology provider Tenzing Communications Inc.; and Connexion, a Boeing Co. subsidiary, which will begin offering a commercial high-speed service in early 2004.

Jared Blank, a travel analyst for New York-based Jupiter Research, said that both providers are closely aligned with one of the two major aircraft manufacturers -- Airfone with Airbus, and Connexion with its parent, Boeing. With aircraft design being such an important consideration in providing in-flight network connectivity, there is little room for other companies to enter the market, Blank said.

"There was a lot of talk about [in-flight connectivity] before September 11, and right after it was one of the first things that fell off the airlines' radar screens," Blank said. "Just now, in the past year, we have seen movement in the space" because the airlines are refocused on competitive differentiation, instead of simply staying solvent.

Still, in-flight connectivity isn't ubiquitous. Blank said Airfone's service is available on only two domestic airlines, and Connexion's offering is available only to private planes; it's launching its commercial service next spring on Germany carrier Lufthansa AG. But interest in both offerings is increasing.

The JetConnect service, offered on approximately 700 planes in the United Airlines and Continental Airlines fleets (deals with Delta and US Airways are pending), works in tandem with Verizon's Airfone in-flight calling service. To get online, a user connects his laptop to the Airfone handset, located on the seatbacks in many planes. After dialing Verizon's on-board server, establishing payment and briefly exchanging system settings, the user is able to access POP-based e-mail, selected news and entertainment content, and send instant messages.

The speed of the air-to-ground link is 9.6 Kbps, much slower than even the average dial-up connection. But Bill Pallone, president of Chicago-based Verizon Airfone, said that doesn't hinder the packet-based service.

"I've flown it many times, and I've used the instant messaging feature to reach people back in my office, and it's very comparable to the speed in my office," Pallone said. However, because of connection speed limitations, Web browsing and using VPNs aren't options. Also, the service doesn't work on oceanic flights, since it relies on land-based links.

JetConnect offers two pricing tiers. For $5.99 per flight, users can send instant messages -- using popular clients like AOL Instant Messenger -- plus get news and entertainment content, as well as content provided by the airline. For $15.98 per flight, users can access all those standard JetConnect features, plus send and receive an unlimited number of e-mail messages, though additional charges may apply for large messages and attachments.

Pallone said that his company is working to offer a high-speed service with full Internet access. Though getting the technology approved by the Federal Aviation Administration is a complex process, he said that broadband pilot programs are likely to begin next summer. In two or three years, Pallone said, high-speed Wi-Fi access may be available on most commercial U.S. flights.

When it launches, Connexion's commercial service will use satellites to provide high-speed service via Ethernet or Wi-Fi connections. Onboard data speeds average 20 Mbps, while the link between the ground and the plane is approximately 1 Mbps. Pricing has yet to be finalized, but Terrence Scott, director of communications for Seattle-based Connexion, said the cost will likely be close to $30 per flight.

In addition to Lufthansa, Connexion's service will soon be available from Scandinavian Airlines Systems, Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines and other international carriers. Prior to September 11, Delta, United and American had signed deals to offer the service in the U.S., but they pulled back soon afterward.

"We're actively engaged with the U.S. airlines, and we're confident that you're going to see us announce something in the very near future," Scott said.

Regardless, Blank said, now that the airlines aren't financially struggling as they were two years ago, more and better services will become a reality over the next few years, including Wi-Fi Internet access on many domestic flights.

"We could see Wi-Fi soon from a company like JetBlue" Airways, Blank said. "It's putting Wi-Fi concourses in airports like JFK and Long Beach, and focusing on amenities that consumers value."


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