Broadband to your seat!
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 TheFeature.com.