Business & GA, Commercial

Competition for Connectivity

By James W. Ramsey | November 1, 2001
Send Feedback

Just 18 months ago, real-time airborne Internet access seemed to be far off in the future, despite the explosive growth of terrestrial on-line technology. In fact, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) gurus, who appeared to be running the show back then, predicted that while limited e-mail service would be available using current narrowband technology, true Internet capability was years away because of cost and technology limitations.

One IFE executive commented: "I don’t think we will ever meet passenger expectations. The gap between what the passenger is getting at home and what is on the airplane is steadily widening."

But now, two unlikely competitors–an aerospace giant and a small connectivity specialist–say real-time Internet connectivity can be demonstrated and high-speed broadband service is just around the corner. Avionics Magazine decided to investigate these claims and visited both companies–Connexion by Boeing, a business unit of Boeing Co. with facilities in Irvine, Calif., and Tenzing Communications, based in Seattle. Here is what we found.

Connexion by Boeing

Established less than two years ago, Connexion by Boeing was started as one of the company’s strategically planned expansions into the non-airplane-building world. Drawing from its commercial airliner and satellite experience, along with the military side of its business, Boeing decided that providing airborne broadband Internet access to airline customers would fit this plan.

The launch of Connexion by Boeing preceded the acquisition of Hughes Space and Communications Co., which made Boeing the world leader in satellite communications. In fact, Boeing says it began working on the antenna technology–a key element of its broadband system–as far back as 1986 on a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) program.

In January of 2000, Boeing’s board of directors approved the formation of the of the enterprise, and in April, Connexion by Boeing was announced. The following October, the new entity became a separate business unit within Boeing, reporting directly to Chief Executive Officer Phil Condit. Connexion has 550 employees evenly divided between its facilities in Irvine, Calif., and in Kent, Wash., near Seattle. Planning and development were under way, but the June 2001 announcement of a tentative partnership agreement with United, American and Delta Air Lines signalled the enterprise was for real. At the Paris Air Show, Boeing announced Lufthansa German Airlines as its first international customer.

The decision to launch was prompted by market research "that showed customers wanted real-time connectivity to the Internet, providing a greater amount of data at higher speeds, as well as live entertainment," says Andrew Weisheit, Connexion by Boeing’s vice president of subscriber acquisition and marketing.

"Our research focused on corporate CIOs [chief information officers] and on our airline partners to establish expectations in the marketplace," Weisheit says. "Corporations want to extend communications capability to mobile workers who are traveling. The productivity gains are terrific." Until recently, travelers boarding an aircraft have entered "a zone of e-silence," says Weisheit, "disconnected from functions important to daily life, like e-mail."

‘We Know Broadband Works’

Boeing chose the broadband route–which it expects to be operational in mid-2002 over the continental United States–because it is confident in the technology. "We know broadband works. It is functioning for us today," says Ed Laase, director of system development and deployment. "Competitors talk about a migration path to broadband. It is something highly conceptual to them at this point," he maintains.

"In many businesses, assemblers underestimate being able to internally develop component parts and technologies that are critical to delivering the product or service," Laase adds. "The technical challenge is putting the system on an airplane, and then working through the regulatory approval process."

Boeing has been test flying a breadboard version of its system on a company B737-400 called "Connexion One." Test flights began last February and are continuing to certify portions of the system.

The stakes in this market are huge, no matter which estimate you pick. Connexion by Boeing President Scott Carson has estimated that the in-flight data services market could generate $50 billion in revenues by 2010–and that Boeing’s share of the pot could be as much as $5 billion, if the company captures 10 to 12 percent of that figure. These predicted figures are based on subscription fees, revenues from net advertisers, and access to Web buying activities–including on-line shopping. Some analysts dispute the size of this projection.

The equippage cost per airliner has been estimated at $100,000, which Boeing will not confirm. Added weight to the aircraft will range from 400 to 700 pounds (181 to 318 kg), according to the number of passenger seats that would require connections. The cost to passengers has been reported as high as $20 per hour–about the cost of an airborne telephone call.

"The technology we are putting together, with the use of leased transponders from existing geosynchronous satellites, allows us to make a price offering that will be competitive," Laase insists. "Operating costs are based on the number of customers using the system."

At present, Boeing sees only Tenzing as a viable contender in the marketplace. Boeing maintains that its approach of using its own resources differs greatly from that of its competitor, "which is trying to create a business and bring all these things together from various sources," a spokesman says.

Airline Arrangement

Boeing’s arrangement with United, Delta, and American–the three largest U.S. carriers–allows them to become equity investors and to participate in joint development. Connexion is working with these partners, who share a building adjacent to Boeing’s Irvine facilities.

Connexion initially will equip 30 aircraft–10 from each airline–with the system on longer-range flights. The long-range plan calls for 1,500 aircraft (500 from each carrier) to be equipped. (This combination, including Lufthansa’s fleet, comprises 11 percent of the world’s inventory of commercial airliners with 100 or more seats, Connexion says.)

Boeing plans to provide the system aircraft-wide, believing leisure passengers need the service, too, in contrast to the competitor’s systems, which start with business travelers. And the company is looking beyond the huge airline market–working with bizjet and high-net worth individual owners.

Service Offering

Boeing also plans to offer access to corporate intranets, allowing business travelers to receive their company e-mail and correspondence. "We’re working with corporations to tunnel through their firewalls and get live access to their internal file servers," says Joyce Bane, Connexion marketing communications manager.

Boeing also plans to offer live television and audio, including sports and news channels, with content tailored to different regions of the world. Four channels, including CNN-provided news, will be delivered to the laptop, and one of those channels–which will be free–can be delivered to the in-flight entertainment (IFE) overhead screen. (Live TV will require a 20-megabits per second [Mbits/sec] download capability from the satellite.) And "it will be possible to watch TV and be on the Internet at the same time," Bane says.

The entertainment feature may compete with IFE suppliers’ current and future programs. However, Boeing describes its broadband system as complementary, not competitive, with in-flight entertainment. But the company’s announcement of a planned broadband Internet offering "really shook up the IFE marketplace," admits Laase.

Boeing says it is designing a server with an Internet-based standard protocol, so cabin entertainment suppliers can design future IFE systems to work with Connexion. The company is working with the IFE industry through the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) to meet that standard. But until future IFE systems come on line, Connexion wants a distribution system that meshes into existing systems.

Equipment On Board

Connexion equipment on board the aircraft includes the antennas, a receiver/transmitter unit, and an airborne server. Boeing’s dual, electronically steered (no moving parts) antennas allow the instant movement of the antenna beam from one position to another. This ensures that the system maintains connectivity between the aircraft and the satellite at all times while compensating for any aircraft motion. The antennas, produced at Boeing’s Kent facilities, are flat and closely mounted to minimize drag.

The transmitter/receiver subsystem acts as a modem, or satcom terminal, receiving and decoding radio frequency (RF) signals from the satellite and encoding and spreading the signal transmissions off the aircraft back to the satellite. Boeing uses a form of code division multiple access (CDMA) technology similar to a cell phone. Encryption protects whatever is being sent from eavesdropping.

Boeing has contracted with ViaSat, of Carlsbad, Calif., to provide the subsystem. The airborne server will be a standard Internet local area network (LAN) -based server, using the Linux operating system. These are industry-standard networking tools, and the only thing unique about them, Laase explains, is that "they must be airborne-qualified for safety of flight" by Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory authorities.

Boeing will lease satellite transponders aboard the Loral Skynet Telstar-6 over the United States. The service has a potential download (satellite-to-airplane) capability of 20 Mbits/sec and a 1-Mbit/sec transmission (return link) from the aircraft to the satellite. A new satellite scheduled for launch in mid-2002 will provide coverage for the United States and Brazil and over the North Atlantic. Initially, it will be the only Ku-band service over that ocean, says Laase. Boeing will lease 11 of its satellite transponders for its North American service and 14 for over the Atlantic. As usage picks up, more transponders will be leased, Laase says.

Connexion is working on methods to provide "a user interface to bring data to the passenger without adding weight to the seat," says Joe Shaheen, Connexion deputy director. "If you touch the seat, that requires certification," he explains. "We could be in business now, actually flying. But it would be a clumsy, power-hungry version of the distribution system."

"Eventually, we want that connection to be wireless," Shaheen says. "Our goal is to have an airborne wireless LAN that meets next-generation wireless standards and is robust enough to handle that kind of data."

Boeing has obtained Federal Communications Commission licenses to receive signals in the United States and last November filed with the agency for permission to transmit. It hopes to receive that license by the end of this year. Outside the United States, Boeing must seek a license from each country, and it has begun that process for European coverage. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva develops standards for the use of RF or wireless transmissions throughout the world. Its current regulations, however, do not allow for transmission off airplanes in the portion of the Ku-band that Boeing is suggesting.

At the last ITU World Radiocommunication Conference, Boeing asked for a review of the radio regulations to allow it to transmit on that frequency. The ITU agreed to study the request, and Boeing believes the ITU is inclined to approve the change at its next conference in Caracas in 2003.

Although some countries rely on ITU for guidance, they can issue licenses for use in domestic airspace without ITU consent, Laase says. So Boeing will not have to wait for the 2003 decision to introduce its service in those countries, he maintains.

How it Works

After plugging the laptop into the passenger control unit or the air phone link, customers can log on to get to Internet pages. Passengers then can send or receive e-mail.

Next comes the "photo page" that includes top news stories, sports and entertainment. This page is updated and delivered by satellite as often as every five minutes.

"Rather than caching the information on this page [loading data on the Internet server prior to departure], you are on the Internet conducting real-time transactions," Weisheit says. "You can use the information we supply or you can go to your provider–such as Yahoo or AOL– using your laptop or other client device."

We’re trying to mirror the experiences that you have on the ground in the air," Weisheit says. "Broadband gives you DSL [digital subscriber line] -like experience, with higher speed and higher quality." Connexion also will offer seven-day, 24-hour worldwide customer service.

Tenzing Communications

Tenzing Communications is challenging industry giant Boeing, whom the newcomer refers to as "our neighbor down the street." Tenzing originated in Australia in 1998, a product of airline and Internet experts. A company founder’s business associates at Cathay Pacific Airlines had devised a way to send and receive e-mail from aircraft using today’s communications paths. The airline’s connection with Tenzing was further strengthened with the recent appointment of Cathay Pacific executive Edward Nicol as Tenzing’s chief executive officer (CEO). Cathay subsidiary Taikoo Aviation Technologies invested $10 million (U.S) in Tenzing last February.

Taking its name from Tenzing Norkey, the Sherpa guide who helped Sir Edmund Hillary climb Mount Everest, the company moved from Sydney to Redmond, Wash., in 1999. The privately owned organization moved to its present 38th-floor offices in downtown Seattle a year ago. It employs 150 persons and has offices in Los Angeles, London and Singapore.

When it moved to the United States, Tenzing began developing its product and establishing necessary relationships with industry partners. Agreements were secured with Hughes Global Services to provide satellite links with satcom providers SITA in Europe and Comsat in the United States, and with GTE Airfone for North America.

Tenzing selected L-3 Communications to provide modems and Datron to supply antennas. Then Tenzing had to locate airborne servers–either part of the telephony or in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems–that would run its application, as well as establish relationships with the major IFE suppliers. Regulatory requirements were not a problem, given the use of proven L-band technology, and necessary supplemental type certificates (STCs) were acquired.

Airbus Comes Aboard

A major boost came with the announcement in June that Airbus was acquiring a 30 percent share of Tenzing, making it the preferred supplier for in-flight e-mail and Internet solutions. Tenzing’s service can be provided for production aircraft or retrofitted in any Airbus models in service. The system is operational on an Airbus-owned Airbus Corporate Jetliner (ACJ) and was installed on an A340-600 and delivered to Cathay Pacific in August. Retrofits of airlines’ A330s and A340s are ongoing.

"This was significant for us and the industry, for now there are two leading players–Tenzing and Boeing–whereas several years ago there were a number of players. It’s a two-horse race today," exclaims John Wade, Tenzing’s executive vice president, strategic development, and general manager-Seattle.

One reason Airbus invested in Tenzing, Wade says, is because the Internet provider can "integrate multiple communications systems on multiple hardware platforms."

In mid September, during the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) Conference, Tenzing announced further agreements. With Airbus’ blessing, the company joined forces with communications provider ARINC and Astrium, the European entity jointly owned by EADS and BAE Systems that builds satellite communications networks. Together, this consortium is to add broadband connectivity via satellite to Tenzing’s service. Airbus intends to offer a range of broadband services to its airline customers.

"With broadband," says Nicol, "we can assure [our] existing customers that they have a confirmed upgrade path."

Tenzing’s initial service uses Inmarsat L-band, air-to-ground satellite links. The connection between passenger laptops and existing satcom avionics will be provided by in-seat IFE units, onboard telephones or LANs–or in the future, by wireless LANs. The system is compatible with most laptop PCs using Windows and, in the future, will be available for Macintoshes and for personal digital assistants (PDAs), Wade says.

Tenzing is aiming its connectivity service at frequent business travelers on long-haul over-ocean or transcontinental flights. (In the future it envisions expanding the service to coach customers.) In addition to e-mail, passengers will have access to free, cached or stored Web content, including news, sports and entertainment. Last March Tenzing concluded an agreement with Inmarsat-based live television promoter Aria, covering an integrated TV, e-mail and Web cache service.

Tenzing has concluded six months of passenger in-flight trials of its e-mail and Web service on five Air Canada aircraft. The airline plans to deploy the system on its fleet of 200 aircraft. Tenzing also signed SAS and another carrier for trial periods.

"We’re the only one who has signed anyone," says Wade, pointing to agreements with seven air carriers.

Singapore Airlines began technical trials last April of Tenzing’s service aboard a Boeing 747-400 flying between Singapore and Los Angeles. Virgin Atlantic became Tenzing’s European launch customer, adding e-mail service to its airborne phone service on B747-200s/-400s and Airbus A340s. Cathay Pacific also has signed on. All three airlines are scheduled for fleet installation later his year. Varig Airlines selected the system for its fleet of B777s in June.

Varig will make regional content available in three languages, with access through its Matsushita MAS 3000 IFE system. Finnair came on board as a customer in June, as well. It plans to integrate Tenzing’s system into its Matsushita IFE system on four MD-11s. Finnair wants to expand this service next year via a wireless cabin network. The airline also will install the system on its fleet of 36 A320s. And, on Sept. 12, Tenzing announced another European customer: Swissair.

Some 30 aircraft should be fitted with the Tenzing system by the end of this year, and 300 by the end of 2002. Five hundred aircraft are expected to be committed for deployment in the next four years. Tenzing says that systems already are operational on a handful of Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Air Canada airplanes on a no-charge, promotional basis.

While Boeing predicts a $45-billion overall marketplace, Tenzing anticipates a multibillion-dollar market–"enough revenue for both Boeing and Tenzing to coexist," Wade says.

Cost

Unlike Boeing, Tenzing quotes cost figures. On North American flights, passengers will pay $4.95 for "unlimited" access throughout the flight to view titles and senders of e-mails. Passengers would pay another 20 to 50 cents per page read or sent. Access will be free to the cached Web pages that are loaded on the ground and updated during flight.

Market research shows most people think Internet use should be free, and they don’t want to pay, even for broadband service, Wade says. "Our approach to pricing is let’s start with the cheaper systems, and let passengers say they would like additional service. Let’s not gamble on installing complex, expensive systems that have gone unproven in the economic marketplace."

The cost of equipping an aircraft for the service starts at $50,000 and varies according to what equipment is already on the plane. If there is a satcom and phone system, a server (one box) is all that is needed, Wade says. This can be installed in a couple of hours, he adds. While Tenzing normally plugs its server–made by Miltope–into the cabin telecommunications unit (CTU), suppliers are developing a CTU file server that replaces the current system and plugs into its space. Installation would take less than an hour, Wade predicts. In other platforms Tenzing’s system would be integrated directly into existing IFE systems, such as the MAS 3000.

Market Strategy

The Tenzing approach is "much more evolutionary ... [whereas] Boeing’s is more revolutionary," Wade says. Ground-based broadband technology, on which Boeing is relying, "has not taken off the way it was predicted two years ago," he points out. "The reasons are cost and then cost," he reiterates.

Tenzing is quite comfortable with its initial, narrowband service. "Broadband Internet service on the ground is about twice the monthly fee of narrowband service," Wade says, adding that "e-mail fundamentally is a narrowband device."

In response to Connexion’s claim that large volumes of data cannot be sent by narrowband links, Wade maintains that "most e-mail you get contains short messages, not large attachments," and works well with narrowband.

He also disputes the claim that it takes too long to send e-mails by narrowband connections. On a recent demonstration flight from Singapore to Los Angeles, 1,000 e-mails were sent and received, Wade points out. "With our airborne system, we store messages on the server until we make the next call–which is in 10 to 15 minutes. When [the messages] get off the plane, they go [via satellite] directly into the Internet." With existing satellites and the onboard phone system and radios, e-mails take 10 to 15 minutes to reach their destination, depending on backlog, Wade insists.

Broadband on the Way

Tenzing recognizes, however, that broadband represents the future, which is why the company formed agreements with ARINC and Astrium. It also demonstrated its own new broadband system at the Paris Air Show last June. Live demonstrations of the system, in conjunction with L-3 Communications (the Ethernet link provider), used a teleport in Switzerland transmitting an 8-Mbit/sec data stream fed by the Hughes Anatolia 1 Ku-band satellite. Tenzing says the system provides secure access to e-mail, corporate applications and two channels of live video displaying BBC World News and Bloomberg News. Tenzing claims its broadband service will be 60 percent faster than Connexion’s. Part of Tenzing’s broadband spectrum will be allocated to live TV.

Tenzing feels it has an advantage over Connexion in dealing with regulatory hurdles. Wade says the Ku-band Boeing plans to use has not been approved for transmission in commercial service although there are a number of Ku-band satellites in space. While there is no problem with reception, in transmitting to the satellite "you must be very careful, because if you illuminate more than one transponder, you actually knock off half the signal from the next transponder," Wade explains. "You must have a very tight beam so you only illuminate one satellite–otherwise it can affect other commercial service." Boeing claims its phased array antenna solves this problem.

For broadband service Tenzing plans to use Inmarsat’s L-band to transmit and Ku-band to receive. "This is completely legal," Wade insists. "There’s no regulatory issue with that."

Wade says another technical broadband issue involves access to corporate intranet services, where security is very important. And loading Web pages could be delayed up to a minute. He claims Tenzing has found a way to manage that problem so, when its broadband product is rolled out, it will be more satisfactory.

Future

Cathay Pacific plans to use a high-speed LAN, giving passengers a 1.5-Mbit/sec interface. Tenzing also is launching a wireless cabin system on an SAS 767-300ER this month.

"If you plug your laptop into a standard telephone handset, you will get 56 kilobits/sec, the same as a telephone modem," Wade explains. "But if you plug it into Cathay Pacific’s LAN, you get 1.5 Mbits/sec." The SAS wireless system is expected to offer speeds up to 11 Mbits/sec.

"You can get a card that you can plug into your laptop that allows you to wirelessly connect through the network into the Internet," he says. "This is the world’s first, and we are confident it will receive certification."

Accessing Tenzing’s onboard system is similar to the procedure required by Connexion. If a customer can’t get a "dial-in" connection, then Tenzing will provide a CD that solves that problem. "We’re going to get it on your computer one way or another," says Dan Kelly, director of system testing.

The system does allow access to corporate e-mail, Kelly says. "If you can get to your [Microsoft] Exchange server through the Web,...then we can get to it readily." Inserting a CD enables access to corporate

intranet sites, Kelly says. Corporate specialists can make laptop adjustments, he explains. "If you want to communicate in-house, they will make it possible."

Initially, during trial periods, "to get everyone’s e-mail on and off the plane in a timely matter, we restrict the content [volume]," Kelly says. The current quota allows a user to send and receive a total of 200 kilobits. "Later, as we move on, you will get a certain amount of content with your subscription, and you can buy more capacity if you need it."

A mail management feature indicates the content of incoming messages, allowing a passenger to be selective in what he wants to "order up" from the ground. The system also tells how much of the quota has been used and shows which messages have been sent and which are still pending.

Tenzing provides a "customer care" service, allowing users to call for help at no charge if they have trouble getting connected or experience other problems with the system. The company’s network operations center (NOC), located at the Seattle facility, monitors all aircraft that are flying with the Tenzing system aboard and will detect if a client is having problems.

IFE Threatened?

The initial response from in-flight entertainment (IFE) producers indicates they are not overly concerned about inroads into their markets by connectivity suppliers Connexion by Boeing and Tenzing.

IFE industry leader Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp. (MASC) agrees with both Boeing and Tenzing that connectivity services will augment and work in conjunction with traditional IFE, not in competition with it, despite both companies’ plans to offer live TV in addition to data. "The MAS System 3000 already hosts Tenzing’s service on some airlines, and its system was proven in flight earlier this year on the Connexion by Boeing test aircraft," a MASC spokesman claims. "Ours is the only IFE system that is offerable on both Tenzing and [Boeing]."

However, Matsushita says its systems will be fully Internet- and broadband-enabled when broadband comes on line. The company plans to incorporate seatback connectivity. "But if the question is, ‘do we plan to compete with Tenzing or Boeing,’ the answer is a definite ‘no,’" the spokesman says. "We’re a systems provider, not an Internet service provider. Our strategy is to be the pipe to the passenger from Boeing, Tenzing or any other broad- or narrowband provider."

The MAS System 3000 will be used as the pipeline for Varig Airlines’ e-mail connectivity, using Tenzing’s system. "Connexion is currently defining their system architecture," MASC says. "But in the end, we expect that both [Connexion] and Tenzing will utilize IFE systems for most of their passenger interface."

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox