Business & GA, Commercial

Wireless Undeterred

By James W. Ramsey | February 1, 2004
Send Feedback

Despite a number of unanswered questions regarding interference risks posed by wireless Internet access or the use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) on board aircraft (January 2004), airlines and bizjet operators are moving ahead with wireless cabin systems. Wireless local area networks (LANs) using IEEE 802.11b technology appear to offer the least interference risk. Two European airlines–Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS)–will be using wireless LANs to deliver Connexion by Boeing broadband Internet service to passengers, beginning in the spring of 2004.

Lufthansa Technik, a division of Lufthansa German Airlines, won approval from Germany’s LBA and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) last May to install a wireless radio connection in Boeing 747-400 aircraft meeting special structural criteria. Additional operational certification must be obtained for wireless LAN devices (laptops) supporting the IEEE 802.11b standard to be used aboard the aircraft.

During a three-month trial period, consisting of 155 flights with Internet on board, Lufthansa "was able to demonstrate to the authorities that the wireless LAN does not cause interference or harm to the systems on board the particular aircraft," according to Burkard Wigger, general manager of project Lufthansa FlyNet. Lufthansa contracted with Connexion last May to offer the FlyNet service on its entire 80-aircraft, long-range fleet, launching operational service in March on an A340.

Wigger feels there is "no doubt the same certification [as that required for the B747] will be easily possible on the A340. Both aircraft are robust with regard to wireless [radio] signals," he maintains. The wireless cabin installation and the configuration of the onboard network were developed and are provided by Lufthansa Technik, says Wigger. Connexion, the Internet service provider, has developed and provides the satellite link technology, including the antenna.

In addition, Connexion handles the overall system integration of the wireless network with its core network, which routes the signals and provides aircraft position information to orient the satcom antenna. Connexion also provides the leased satellite transponders and ground stations.

It’s easier to equip the airplane with a wireless LAN than with a wired system, according to Stan Deal, vice president of sales for Connexion. "It saves weight, saves downtime on the airplane." The Connexion system provides not only high-speed e-mail and Internet service to the passengers, but less expensive communications for both cockpit and cabin crew members, Deal maintains. "Flight crews could use it for information updates, to uplink weather information, and to downlink maintenance information to the ground. And flight attendants can use it to uplink or downlink new ticket reservation information for passengers."

SAS also has chosen the wireless route for its Connexion broadband service. Installation is to begin in February 2004, and first operational service is expected as early as April. The carrier’s entire long-haul fleet is expected to be equipped with the system by the spring of 2005. SAS "will be the first airline in the world to invest exclusively in wireless technology [via the IEEE 802.11b standard] for Internet on board," the company claims.

Operational certification of SAS’ system is being discussed with the Joint Aviation Authority (JAA) and also with STK (the Scandinavian authorities). Approval is expected in time for the start of service this spring, according to SAS spokesperson Pia Forsstrom.

British Airways conducted a three-month trial of the Connexion system, ending last May but has not yet announced plans for its installation. But Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways (ANA) have preliminary agreements in place and are finalizing their fleet plans, Deal says.

No U.S. customers have yet been signed by Connexion–it is felt that financial constraints imposed on U.S. airlines following 9-11 have restricted sales. But Deal says a major U.S. domestic customer has been evaluating its product over the last four months and was expected to announce an agreement in the near term.

Connexion by Boeing uses a 737-400 to test new wireless applications as well as new software before it’s delivered to its airline customers. And the unit operates a wireless laboratory at its Irvine, Calif., facilities, where "we are peeking around the corner at applications that might be offered over a wireless network–such as streaming video and audio," says Terrance Scott, Connexion spokesman.

Tenzing Communications also is offering a wireless e-mail and text messaging service tailored to business jet passengers, based on its product for commercial airlines. In-flight e-mail is enabled by the addition of a "laptop-sized" onboard server installed with Tenzing software and then connected to the existing aircraft communications systems.

"The server includes a wireless access point that can actually ‘illuminate’ the entire cabin of a corporate aircraft such as a [Gulfstream] GV," says John Wade, Tenzing executive vice president. "Any passenger with a 802.11b laptop will be able to connect. The system will operate over any communications system that’s available, whether satcom or telephony," he adds.

"In the corporate aviation market, if you want to have a broadband connection, you’re looking at somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000," Wade says. "We can take an existing radio system, and for $20,000 you can give yourself e-mail and a wireless cabin." The new Tenzing system, which has been tested on a Citation and other aircraft, is available today, he says. It does not require certification for Part 91 operators, where use of such systems is at the captain’s discretion. But "in the testing that we’ve done, we’ve not seen any [interference] issues," he says. Tenzing also is working with Airbus for the use of an 802.11b wireless connection for its e-mail service.

No Wires to Trip Over

Meanwhile, Rockwell Collins is providing a wireless product for the corporate marketplace. Its high-speed data system, including e-mail and Internet access, has been certified and is operating on two high-end business jets–a Bombardier Global Express and a Dassault Falcon 900EX. Collins offers a dual-channel, high-speed data installation that uses the Inmarsat Swift64 service, operating at 128 kilobits per sec (Kbits/s).

The system uses Collins’ HST-900 (high-speed transceiver) and a Collins SAT-906 satcom system, delivering information to the corporate passenger via a wireless LAN, says Chris Evans, Rockwell Collins cabin systems marketing manager. "We offer it in the aftermarket to our dealer network. It simplifies installation, reduces wiring on the aircraft, and provides more flexibility for the passengers, with no wires to trip over." A laptop with a wireless (802.11b) card is required to send and receive signals to the wireless LAN unit, which is a receiver/transmitter and can be configured behind a panel in the aircraft.

"There is an Ethernet connection on that wireless LAN," Evans explains. "It is wireless from the laptop to the LAN, but then there is a portion that is wired from the wireless LAN unit to a router." The router, which is connected to the Collins HST, enables multiple users in the cabin to access the aircraft’s high-speed data system.

The biggest portion of a retrofit installation, if high-speed data is desired, is installing the Aero H antenna on board the aircraft, a process that could take up to two weeks. "But if people want high-speed data bad enough, they’ll schedule aircraft downtime and take advantage of it to accomplish other maintenance tasks," says Evans. As for expense, "the intra-cabin wireless portion isn’t what’s driving the cost. It’s the off-aircraft connectivity part of it."

Collins plans to enter the broadband market in the bizjet arena as well, announcing last October a partnership with Connection by Boeing. Collins’ eXchange system will provide "cable quality" Internet access, e-mail with large attachments, and live direct broadcast satellite (DBS) television programming. Collins will offer a wireless installation as an option for its customers.


Honeywell offers a wireless high-speed data system, along with entertainment features, as part of its "Ovation" cabin management systems for corporate jets. Combining its own expertise with that of Baker Electronics, which it acquired in December 2002, Honeywell will offer two different product lines–based on aircraft type and affordability–according to Eric Olson, product marketing lead for Honeywell Cabin Management Systems and Services in Sarasota, Fla.

The less expensive C series operates on a CANbus and provides "traditional" wireless capabilities, Olson says. It can work in conjunction with the Iridium satellite system. The more expensive E series features a 1000baseT, "Gigabit Ethernet," digital backbone similar to that used in modern offices. This system is tailored for high-end business jets.�

Installations of Honeywell’s higher-end system are scheduled to begin late in the first quarter of 2004 on a Gulfstream G-550 and a Dassault Falcon 900, using versions of the Inmarsat Swift64 satellite high-speed data (HSD) system. One installation will operate at 64 Kbits/s, and the other dual-channel system at 120 Kbits/s.

A typical high-end system, Olson envisions, will have a Honeywell satcom, an HSD and a Honeywell server to manage the communications. (The system also includes wireless PCUs [personal control units] to control video, DVDs, headset volume, cabin lights and temperature.

Integrated wireless access points will bring the high-speed data–whether by satcom, Swift64 or new Ku-band technology–onto the digital backbone. "Any communications system the consumer has on this plane will come right onto the digital bus, and then all the users on the aircraft will access that wirelessly through their own laptops," Olson explains. And while in conventional cabins the backbone is not fast enough to allow streaming video, in the new systems with the digital backbone, "you can watch a video on your laptop," adds Olson.

While TV and video are popular with corporate customers, operators are concerned with justifying their investments. "The thing that really pays for it, is the fact that we can make [the aircraft] more productive," Olson says. "The [1000baseT] backbone is compatible with everything you have in your office. You just plug right into the network."


Verizon Airfone, a major provider of air-to-ground telephony systems–with 3,000 installations in the corporate market under the MagnaStar trade name–is also actively involved in providing e-mail and messaging services and is exploring use of wireless technology in flight. (Raytheon produces the MagnaStar digital phone, and Teledyne Controls markets the system; Verizon provides the connectivity service.) The Oak Brook, Ill., subsidiary of Verizon has teamed with Tenzing to provide e-mail service to passengers.

At present, Verizon JetConnect service is installed on United Airlines’ and Continental Airlines’ entire domestic fleets, and "is the only provider of e-mail capabilities on U.S. commercial flights," the company contends. For this service, the passenger plugs his laptop into the onboard Airfone system, which passes the signal on to the Verizon 138-station ground network that covers North America (September 2003). The company also is moving ahead into WiFi, or wireless fidelity, a spokesperson explains.

"We’re working on providing passengers with the ability to use their own wireless devices–whether a laptop or a PDA [personal digital assistant]–using access points on the aircraft that will communicate directly with the onboard server and the user’s mobile device," she says. "This would decrease the weight of our Airfone system, due to the reduction in required cabin equipment."

Verizon is testing broadband technology and intends to implement this service in 2005, depending on FCC approval. While Connexion by Boeing uses satellite technology for its broadband service, Verizon intends to leverage its existing, licensed spectrum and ground network.

"The broadband system we’re looking at also will be a network–covering the same geographic area–and would be marketed to the corporate aviation market, as well as air transport," according to Mike Kuehn, Verizon Airfone vice president of marketing.

As a first step towards using cell phones in flight, Verizon plans to offer a service where calls to a personal cell phone would be automatically routed to the air phone handset. The Airfone and Jetconnect service would be billed on the user’s cellular bill.

Looking at the future, Verizon sees as "an extremely viable option," the use of voice over Internet protocol (IP) in cellular handsets, Kuehn says. In conjunction with wireless access points in the aircraft, "if you have a handset with a voice over IP chip set, or option in it, you can carry the voice traffic via the WiFi through that [wireless] access point." That’s one of things we are looking at when that option becomes available, he says.

The Cellular Explosion

AirCell Inc., the Colorado-based provider of in-flight phone service, primarily equips corporate aircraft. Some 1,500 corporate aircraft use AirCell systems.

But the company is moving into the air transport market, as well. AirCell received a supplemental type certificate (STC) for its AST-3500 transceiver system installation on the Airbus 319 in December 2003.� A 90-day trial of a wireless bulkhead telephone using the AST-3500 was scheduled to begin on board a Denver-based, Frontier Airlines A319 in January 2004. The airline’s evaluation could lead to fleet-wide implementation.

The implementation to be demonstrated on Frontier is a closed-loop system that uses a wireless (but not cellular) handset–part of the aircraft’s certified system. (AirCell describes it as a "cordless" handset.) The system "will utilize AirCell’s cellular telephone network over the continental U.S. and the Iridium satellite network outside the U.S.," says Bill Peltola, AirCell vice president of sales and marketing. Peltola says that the AirCell system is the only Federal Aviation Administration–and Federal Communications Commission–approved airborne telecommunications system that uses cellular technology. The company has 134 base stations–antennas and equipment–piggybacked on other carriers’ assets.

The phone used in Frontier’s cabin will be provided to passengers and crewmembers to use throughout the aircraft. The system can be used by crewmembers in case of medical emergency and to send operational and maintenance information to the ground. Peltola promises that the cost of the service to passengers "will be a lot lower than what people have to pay currently for air phone service."

Also, on corporate aircraft using AirCell’s system, passengers don’t use their own cell phones, but "use special phones that we provide," Peltola explains. "They use cellular frequencies, cellular control channels, and cellular ground stations." He predicts, however, that use of personal cell phones on board will happen eventually. "We have the technology to do it today. It’s just a matter of the regulatory issues and the timing."

AirCell’s system has been able to avoid disruption of the ground-based cellular network by actively controlling the phone devices. "Currently, if you use a cell phone on an aircraft, it’s probably going to ramp up to high power, trying to see a station a long way away. What our system does is to control the power because basically you will be no more than 50 feet (15.2 meters) away from the station." The "station" is the device installed on the airplane "that talks to the cell phone," Peltola explains. "Whether it’s wireless LAN or cellular, we take those signals–we have a sort of cell on the airplane that takes those signals–and then we send them through our network."

Last July, AirCell received a patent on the technology that would support airborne use of personal cell phones. The company claims its approach reduces the size, weight and cost of equipment required to provide cellular service on board an aircraft, compared to earlier approaches–known as "picocells"–which involved putting the equivalent of a full terrestrial-based cellular station on an aircraft. The company estimates it will install and demonstrate the system in an aircraft early in 2004 and have it certified aboard a commercial air transport by mid-2004.

Teledyne Controls

Teledyne Controls produces its Aircraft Wireless LAN Unit (AWLU), which can provide connectivity for corporate aircraft in two ways. As an IEEE 802.11 system, it can connect to an airport gatelink, a service that is becoming prominent at the larger facilities. The AWLU also can connect to a ground link via an onboard server and a service such as a satellite link or Teledyne’s MagnStar system. Teledyne attained the AWLU technology as a result of acquiring Spirent’s Aviation Information Solutions.

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox