Winged and Wired
By Justin Hall, Thu Oct 25 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Worried that some folks might have a moment to themselves, several companies are promising to keep business travelers online in-flight.

The early leader is Tenzing, founded in 1999 by two Australians and now based in Seattle. Starting with Air Canada in December of 2000, Tenzing has been providing inflight Internet access through a number of air carriers.

Today, Air Canada, Cathay pacific Airways and Singapore airlines are all offering some email and web access to some passengers on some flights. FinnAir, Virgin Atlantic, SAS and Varig are soon to follow.

We sat down with Tenzing's Director of Marketing Laura Alikpala as she spoke of her experience with inflight internet on several trans-oceanic flights. if you have a chance to fly on a plane with an internet connection in the next eighteen months, this is what you can

Tenzing: Hands-on

You must have a laptop PC running Windows. Macintosh, PDA and Linux support is being developed, but until then, those users will have to settle for duty free shopping catalogs.

Passengers are advised to register in advance on the Tenzing web site. A free registration, this will track your credit card for possible charges, and you can sign up for a free Tenzing email account. Alikpala suggests that passengers might use this when traveling to have their email forwarded and at the ready up in the air.

Tenzing requires some proprietary software; nothing fancy, a network connection for Windows with some popup messages about the service. For corporate users with super-locked down computers, you can fashion your own dialup settings.

Now in-flight, you sit down at your seat, and look for a jack to plug into. Tenzing is "platform agnostic" meaning that it will run on varied communications networks. Within most planes today, the existing communications network is built to support the AirFone service, meaning telephone download speed of 56k to your seat.

So, RJ-11 Ethernet cord in hand, you must plug into the AirFone, or perhaps the phone in the seat arm. Except on Cathay pacific; they've installed high speed fleet-wide broadband networks. You plug into them with a USb cable. Today the primary bottleneck is between the ground and the airplane, so the inflight network won't affect much what you're viewing or how fast you can view it.

Once you are plugged in, double-click on the dialup connection, and log in with your Tenzing username and password. You're now connected. Log into and you see a list of all the sites that are available to anyone with a free account.

Tenzing keeps a server with a limited number of web pages on the plane. That server is updated every fifteen minutes with signals from the ground or from a satellite. Browsing their limited range of web sites is free. Content includes popular news and features, primarily targeted at the frequent business traveler.

It's not all ephemera, however; Tenzing has partnered with some online education companies to offer "learning modules." So if you've been itching to master some of the complexities of Microsoft Excel, you can curl up with peanuts and ginger ale and spend your entire flight, free, taking an online tutorial. Or perhaps you're keen on some language lessons before you land.

Now you've finished squinting to read articles on your laptop screen, and you want to see what's happening with work, family or friends. You go to the Tenzing Mail Manager web site, and you ask them to retrieve your mail (only pOp3 email today).

At this point, your credit card is charged a basic $9.95 access fee. in your web browser you see a list of headers - to, from, subject, size, and cost to download. You select each message you want to read, and open them in a Tenzing webmail client, or you can tell Tenzing to send them to your email client (currently Outlook and Outlook Express supported).

This "check subjects before you download" should allow you to avoid spam, which is important considering the per-mail charges. Each message you choose to download is charged at a rate of 60 cents per kilobyte. Most emails are around 2 or three kilobytes, so the average email will cost somewhere between one and two dollars. (Giving new meaning to the catchphrase "information economy.")

Tenzing offers monthly plans ranging from $59 to over $100 for heavy email users. in addition to email access inflight, Tenzing offers dialup internet connections around the world. In essence, they're aiming to be a globetrotter's iSp. Hopefully they will start to provide easy internet access from airports, the place where most travel waiting takes place.

With their air carrier partners, Tenzing was the first to launch inflight internet. They took a bare-bones approach: caching a limited number of web sites, doling out email in small doses, making use of existing technologies like the AirFone networks. Other airlines have decided to wait for broadband.

Broadband to your seat!

None of the leading airlines based in the United States have announced deals with Tenzing. instead, Delta, American and United Airlines have agreed to work instead with Connexion.

Connexion from boeing proposes to use a proprietary antenna to provide high-speed communications between satellites and planes.

While the service has been rolled out in some private planes, it isn't set to deploy in the commercial airlines market until the later part of 2002. if Connexion lives up to its promised potential, we'll be able to shop and communicate from the backs of our airplane seats with full streaming video. For many people, their inflight Connexion connection could be better than their home bandwidth.

While these companies are establishing the early standards for inflight internet, some people still dream of truly untethered access to information.

Terrorist attacks in America in September proved that mobile phones can be used in airplanes. Still, safety concerns keep United States government regulations in place preventing wireless communications in the air. Almost no one would want to use a mobile phone from 30,000 feet, connected to a laptop, to dialup to the internet.

Still, extensive news coverage of these airborne mobile phone calls reminded people that the opposition to wireless communications on airplanes is primarily prudent superstition. More testing is required.

Assuming inflight wireless networks aren't fatal, here is a modest proposal. On many flights, GTE AirFone provides a ready in-plane phone, with costs at $2 a minute or more. You can use your laptop modem to make data calls through AirFone, if you have a big credit card limit and much patience.

Considering this, it might be possible to set up a temporary autonomous wireless network; a homemade, low-speed 802.11b experiment on a plane. Connect a phone cord to a wireless router, and dial up the internet through the GTE AirFone at your seat. Once dialed up, use your laptop to config the router to distribute the signal around the plane.

Other passengers are invited to share the Wi-Fi 9600 bps connection, probably for email only. it sounds improbable, and probably illegal, but it would be fun for wireless geeks. We contacted GTE AirFone to ask about this, and they refused to comment.

if dodgy shared 9600 bps access doesn't sate your craving for internet in the air, two airlines have announced that their inflight internet access will be wireless.

As usual, when it comes to wireless, the Nordic countries lead. Tenzing is working with SAS to develop a wireless inflight LAN using 802.11b, the popular Wi-Fi standard for wireless internet communications. They have secured permission to run a test of this service next year.

FinnAir has announced their intention to roll-out wireless as well. Granted the average seat size on most airplanes, and the increasing number of laptops shipping with 802.11b adapters, wireless makes sense. it's hard enough climbing out of coach to go to the bathroom without Ethernet cables strung over your lap.

Before we forget

Do most people actually really want to check their email on an airplane? A lot of folks look forward to flights as a place to drink, kick back, read a book, and pass out. The inflight AirFone service is wildly underutilized; most people don't have very much to say that is worth two to three dollars a minute.

Free web pages are darn nice, but at two dollars an message, the Tenzing system is probably the world's most expensive way to check email. The advent of competition from Connexion will not immediately lower prices; since Connexion requires new communications hardware for airplanes, the costs to set it up are higher and are likely to be passed along to eager inflight information junkies.

One possible popular use could be inflight LAN multiplayer pC games. Megan McQueen with Tenzing responds: "it is possible to make that happen, and at some point, most likely you will be able to. but sorry, no Unreal Tournament or Quake right now."

These first generation inflight internet services seem firmly targeted at business travelers with expense accounts. Jennifer pearson from Cathay pacific envisions a seriously connected airborne professional: "Cathay pacific believes the email/intranet service will be of interest to frequent business travelers who often need to work whilst traveling; basically an extension of their office environment. The airline expects inflight connectivity will soon become an essential part of life and give the ability to keep in touch and make good use of their time whilst traveling."

Virgin Atlantic has a different idea for internet access - equality; Virgin chairman Richard branson: "The introduction of e-mail and internet capabilities will enhance our award winning inflight entertainment for all passengers - unlike other airlines who focus solely on those in business class." Virgin should have internet connections in all their seats on all their planes by the end of 2002.

Even apart from Virgin Atlantic, most long-term plans for inflight internet access are not all productivity and office integration.

In the flying future, internet access is part of an entertainment network. Starting with first class today and gradually spreading back through the rest of the cabin, each seat on the modern airplane is becoming a multimedia command center, part of what Singapore Airlines' James boyd sees as a part of: "the airline's broader concept of providing passengers more of a sense of choice and control during a flight as a means of enhancing their experience."

Most airlines integrate their internet functions with something like the Matsushita MAS 3000 server. State of the art for inflight entertainment, this machine stores 300 hours of randomly-accessible DVD quality video and it can play Gameboy games.

Let's hope for the sake of future travelers these online servers are large enough to provide access to

Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.