Business & GA, Commercial

Dawning of Broadband Connectivity

By David Jensen | September 1, 2003
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It had to have been a first. The final report for certification was submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) via e-mail. And the e-mail was sent from a Boeing 737-400 flying at 35,000 feet over New Mexico. The B737 was Boeing’s specially equipped aircraft for systems test and evaluation, and the report, a total of 800 kilobytes, was the document and supporting material sent to FAA for approval, on May 7, 2002, of the onboard equipment for — appropriately — the Connexion by Boeing broadband connectivity service. This was an important milestone for this Boeing subsidiary, which has been busy since its inception in April 2002 developing a broadband service that will give aircraft passengers high-speed access to the Internet and entertainment, as well as the ability to send and receive e-mail. There have been milestones since.

Two airlines, Lufthansa German Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), have signed definitive agreements for the Connexion service. In addition, British Airways and Japan Airlines have signed memorandums of understanding, indicating their intent to acquire the service.

Spectrum Secured

Giving the service a further boost was the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU’s) recent decision to extend the secondary mobile satellite service allocation in the 14- to 14.5-GHz band to include aeronautical broadband services. Three years ago, at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), Connexion by Boeing proposed that the extension be considered.� "And for three years, using the 737-400, we traversed the world to determine that our service did not cause interference or, if it did, power adjustments could automatically be made to prevent interference," says Sean Griffin, a company spokesman. The testing—for airplane electromagnetic susceptibility and radio frequency propagation and field strength—proved successful, and the allocation was approved, allowing Ku-band use in aeronautical applications. This represents another milestone, as the extension is critical to Connexion’s gaining licenses from each country to operate over its airspace. "The ITU decision should make this process easier," says Griffin.

During a three-month demonstration of the service in a Lufthansa B747-400, starting Jan. 15, 2003, Connexion "had conditional licenses" to use the Ku band over the North Atlantic from several northern European nations, Iceland and Canada, according to Griffin. "We lease transponder capacity as we need it. At this point, we use [Loral Skynet’s] Telstar 6 [satellite] over the U.S., Intelsat over the Atlantic, and Eutelsat over Europe," he adds. About a dozen satellite transponders serve the Connexion service. According to a Connexion by Boeing official, if all of the about 4,000 commercial aircraft in the world became equipped for the service, some 150 satellite transponders would be required. The transponders in the satellites both relay and amplify the signals transferred between the aircraft and ground stations.

The ITU decision is but one hurdle Connexion by Boeing has vaulted on its way to a March 17, 2004, deadline to have its service fully operational for its launch customer, Lufthansa. Another hurdle is to make available the new, third-generation antenna, under development by Japan-based Mitsubishi Electronics. The single-aperture antenna will replace the prototype, phased array antenna that Boeing developed in the late 1980s for a military program. The prototype required two antennas for two-way communications, one to send messages and one to receive them. Mitsubishi’s beam-pointing antenna, which continually detects and tracks satellites, will serve as a single unit. The about 12-inch- (30.5-cm) high parabolic-shaped dish is lighter and requires less electrical power than the prototype, says Griffin. The new antenna also provides reception at higher latitudes—as far north as Greenland (70 degrees latitude), whereas reception from the prototype reached only to Iceland (65 degrees north latitude). Testing of the new antenna on a Boeing jet was to have begun in August, and its certification is expected in December, ready for installation on a Lufthansa A340 in January.

A ground infrastructure accompanies Connexion’s space-based component. The service now has two ground stations—large satellite dishes used to send and receive the broadband signal—which are linked to the ground global information network. One station is in Littleton, Colo., and the other, in Leuk, Switzerland. "We will have a ground station in East Asia and in central Asia by next year [2004]," Griffin asserts.

Connexion by Boeing monitors its service from facilities in Irvine, Calif., and Kent, Wash. "We track every aircraft [with the Connexion service] flying around the globe," says Griffin. "On a large, 3-D screen showing the globe, we see lines that link the aircraft to the satellites and the satellites to the ground station. If the people on one flight are using a lot of bandwidth, we can tell if the quality of service is beginning to deteriorate, and then we can add additional transponder capacity," he explains.

The Connexion service and hardware are to be ready by March 2004, when Lufthansa plans to roll out the first of the about 80 long-haul aircraft it intends to equip for broadband. The German carrier signed a contract with Connexion by Boeing on May 26, 2003. It will outfit Boeing 747-400s, A330-300s and A340-600s for the service, which it calls FlyNet. Some aircraft—for example, the 10 A340-600s Lufthansa has on order—will be equipped prior to initial operation. Fielded aircraft will be equipped during regular C- or D-check maintenance intervals. An installation takes about seven days, according to Griffin, and it involves putting in the antenna and subsystem, the servers, a core network cabinet (an about 10-inch [25.4-cm] cube), and an Ethernet extension and/or wireless local area network (LAN).

Lufthansa Goes Wireless

The FlyNet service will be delivered via a wireless LAN to all classes of seating, according to Michael Lamberty, Lufthansa’s manager of media relations. "We also are considering offering the classic Ethernet in first and business classes, for passengers with laptops who may not be equipped for the wireless service," he adds. (Not all laptops have a WiFi [wireless fidelity] card. Meeting the 802.11b standards, this card, essentially, is a modem for high-speed wireless connection.) The wireless LAN, which was certified by UK and German aviation authorities in May, offers greater flexibility not only to passengers, but also to the airlines that want to reduce the complexity of a wired in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. To illustrate how complex a wired IFE system can be, Griffin says, "There are more lines of code in the little handset for IFE than there is for an autopilot—and it can cost millions of dollars to reconfigure the cabin with wired IFE."

Lufthansa plans to provide two levels of service with FlyNet. A basic service—presenting weather, financial and news reports, as well as information on the aircraft’s destination—will be offered free. The e-mail service and access to the Internet will require a fee.

What to Charge?

Lamberty says Lufthansa will look to Connexion by Boeing’s market research to determine the appropriate cost of the full FlyNet service. From a three-month trials program ending May 16, with British Airways (BA), Connexion found that "passengers are willing to pay $25 to $35 for the service on an eight-hour flight," Griffin reports.�����

The British Airways trial was accompanied by a Boeing survey of more than 2,500 business travelers. From the results, Connexion officials learned that passengers prefer a flat fee and not a per-minute cost for connectivity, says Griffin. The flat fee is easier for business travelers to expense and does not deliver the possible "surprise" of a variable, per-minute fee, he adds. During the Lufthansa trial, Connexion also discovered that many travelers are willing to expend frequent flyer miles for the service. And it found during its market survey that users are "interested in a cafeteria style of pricing," in which they could select and pay for one service—i.e., e-mail—or perhaps a combination of� services, but not for the entire connectivity package.

Surveying passengers flying in a British Airways B747-400 between London Heathrow and New York’s JFK airport, Connexion calculated 3 to 5 percent passenger participation in the service. But it expects eventual 20 percent participation, as in-flight connectivity becomes more commonplace. "The trend since 1980 is to have smaller aircraft flying farther," says Griffin. He believes use of onboard connectivity will grow because "if you’re a business traveler, you’re out of touch with your business during these long, non-stop flights."

British Airways officials were impressed after hearing 47 percent of the Connexion users surveyed say they would "change their booking to BA in order to gain the service," according to Diana Fung, the airline’s vice president-communications. Griffin adds, "We found the _service even eclipsed the preference for a frequent flyer program. Nothing has been able to break the loyalty of a frequent _flyer program" until now. If [BA] can attract just a single passenger per flight _as a result of broadband connectivity, that will bring in an extra $1 million a year," says Griffin.

How It Works

British Airways also is encouraged by results that found 99 percent of the participants in their trial claim they would use the service in the future, and by a survey revealing that 75 percent of business travelers take laptops on board aircraft.

Using the Connexion service is straightforward, but requires the following minimum of hardware and software:

  • Enabled RJ-45 terminated Ethernet interface or configured and operational 802.11b protocol,
  • Windows 95 or higher,
  • Mac 8.6 or higher,
  • Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher, with SSL and JavaScript enabled,
  • Netscape 4.7 or higher, with SSL and JavaScript enabled, and
  • DHCP- (dynamic host configuration protocol) capable settings.

To initiate the broadband service, the passenger first logs on to the browser (Netscape or Internet Explorer). The Connexion system detects that the user is on an airplane and shows an in-flight home page. A brief form must be filled out and credit card number inputted. The passenger is now ready to receive e-mails or Internet data at speeds comparable to what he/she experiences at the office or home. Griffin likens the Connexion service to "an ATM machine, but one that goes 500 miles per hour."

The satellite transponder receives data from broadband-equipped aircraft at a 1-megabit-per-second (Mbit/sec) rate and transmits data to the airplane at a rate of 20 Mbits/sec. The data stream from the satellite is divided into four channels, one for each modem on the aircraft. Each modem has a 5-Mbit/sec capacity.

Will a $25 to $35 per passenger fee cover the cost of the Connexion by Boeing service? The airlines that have signed up for the service apparently believe it can. Customer airlines pay a one-time license fee per aircraft. The fee covers the service and the hardware, which Connexion by Boeing owns and retains. "It’s a little like acquiring a cable service," says Griffin, "except a percentage of the service’s revenue is shared with the customer airline." Carriers, therefore, gain extra income from passengers using Connexion, as well as a way to attract more business travelers.

But Griffin believes the airlines will discover many benefits to broadband connectivity beyond gaining business. For example, the Connexion service could be used to transmit an ill passenger’s vital signs, even with accompanying video. "We’ve used a telemedic device—a finger clamp—and sent a patient’s pulse rate, blood temperature, blood pressure, blood oxygen content and EKG [electrocardiogram] to a medical staff on the ground," says Griffin. Transmission of these vital signs was at 37,000 feet, on a British Airways New York-to-London flight. "We’ve successfully tested voice over IP [Internet protocol], so there can be voice conversation as the medical staff views the data," he adds.

"Flight diversions due to [passengers’] medical problems cost one airline $37 million a year, and many times there wasn’t even a medical emergency," says Griffin. "So if 10 percent of the diversions [due to medical problems] goes away, that one airline would save about $4 million a year."

The aircraft’s health also can be transmitted via broadband to maintenance crews, who are "then prepared for repairs and can get the aircraft turned around more quickly," says Griffin, offering another Connexion benefit. "In other words," according to company literature, "Boeing’s broadband approach transforms airplanes into data nodes in a network—which gives the airplanes’ operators the benefits of running a network-centric operation."

Griffin also suggests airlines can use broadband for onboard booking. "If your plane takes off late, the airline can see which passengers might miss their connecting flights," he explains. "The flight attendants can then rebook flights on the aircraft, and passengers can even have boarding passes."

Finally, Connexion officials contend that broadband connectivity tenders a security benefit. Imagery from onboard video systems can be transmitted to show persons on the ground what is happening in the aircraft cabin. Says Griffin, "We thought immediately after 9/11 what broadband connectivity could have done to help prevent the terrorist attacks."

The U.S. Market

While Connexion by Boeing’s broadband service has successfully landed European and Asian customers, it has yet to draw a U.S. airline customer. Sean Griffin, a Connexion spokesman, says, "U.S. airlines initially came in as equity partners; they wanted to own part of the business. But this was before [the terrorists attacks on] Sept. 11, 2001. It became clear that they were not going to have the resources [for a broadband service] for some time. But those airlines remain engaged with us and are part of our Connexion Working Together program," he adds.

U.S. carriers are entering the narrowband business, however. In late June, Verizon Airfone and Tenzing announced that two airlines, United and Continental, have signed up for their new e-mail service. The two connectivity providers say both airlines "will begin fleet-wide service by this fall," according to a release. Passengers will be able to plug their laptops into the onboard Airfone system and the signal will be passed from the plane to the Verizon ground network, which covers North America only. Passengers won’t maintain a continuous connection, however. Rather, the system will send data batches every 15� minutes.

Verizon offers the e-mail service as part of its JetConnect, an in-flight news, messaging and entertainment service. For a $15.98 fee, the traveler can read the first page of each e-mail message, according to John Wade, Tenzing’s executive vice president for strategic planning. Additional pages can be read for an extra charge of 10 cents per 2 kilobytes.

Tenzing and Verizon tout the simplicity of their system over the Connexion by Boeing system. "It will take 20 minutes to swap server boxes on the airliner and boot up the new software," says Bill Pallone, president of Airfone. "The charge to the airline—zip."

It would appear that competing market research accompanies the competition between Verizon/Tenzing’s narrowband service and Connexion’s broadband service. Connexion officials argue that business travelers want a high-speed service comparable to their e-mail and Internet connectivity in their offices and homes. But Verizon’s Wade claims, "Our research shows that 80 percent of travelers want e-mail…other Internet services are viewed as not being essential."

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