In-Flight Wireless ETA Unknown
The move of CDMA pioneer Airvana Inc. into the airborne networking market, along with the approaching 800MHz spectrum auction for voice and data services should bring long-awaited airborne broadband a little closer to reality. (See Come WiFly With Me and Airvana Targets Inflight.)
Boeing's Connexion service already offers WiFi access to travelers on routes flown by several international carriers, including Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Air, and Korean Airlines. The service has yet to debut on U.S. routes, however; American, United, and Delta all helped develop the Connexion system, but then backed away after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. United expects to become the first domestic carrier to offer WiFi access on all its flights -- but the service won't be available until the end of next year.
One obstacle has been the cost of installing the system on existing jets. It reportedly costs Boeing around $1 million to equip a plane with the Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) equipment to connect to the ground. That has helped keep fees to users high: ranging from $30 for unlimited use on a long-haul flight to $9.95 for 60 minutes plus 25 cents for each additional minute.
Another barrier has been the resistance to cellphone use on planes. The FCC has essentially lumped voice and data transmission together in its regulation of in-flight transmissions, and many flyers, not to mention the FAA, have strong reservations about passengers chatting away at 30,000 feet. Cingular Wireless submitted a letter to the FAA last summer to oppose lifting the ban on cellphone use during flights.
Airvana's system won't solve that problem, but it should offer a technological advance over existing air-to-ground transmission systems. Like Airbus's in-flight connectivity service, Tenzing, Boeing's Connexion uses an onboard server to bounce transmissions off a satellite to ground-based stations. (Tenzing requires laptop users to download client software.)
Airvana's Rev A technology, by contrast, is an Evolution-Data Optimized (EVDO) system that transmits directly from aircraft to specialized base stations, correcting for Doppler shift at the 600mph-plus speeds of modern airliners. Part of the CDMA2000 standard, EVDO will allow super-high-speed handoffs along a network of base stations that will cover continents.
"A single EVDO Rev-A base station provides more data throughput than a satellite transponder," says Airvana director of product management Amit Jain. "Hundreds of EVDO base stations can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of launching a single satellite."
Trans-oceanic flights, Jain adds, will still require a satellite uplink.
Verizon Wireless , whose 56-kbit/s JetConnect in-flight networking service has failed to satisfy many passengers, has been conducting flight tests with Airvana's system at downstream (ground-to-air) speeds of 2.4 Mbit/s. Verizon already owns 1 MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz range for its AirFone seat-back phone service. Airvana, according to Jain, expects to work with Verizon and with other operators, depending on who wins the FCC auction, expected to happen in the first half of 2006.
"One unique thing about our technology is that EVDO requires only 1.25 MHz in which to supply a broadband connection," claims Jain. "The FCC is auctioning only 1.5 MHz upstream and down, so you need a broadband technology which can work in that limited spectrum. Other technologies, like WiMax, required wider bands of spectrum."
At any rate, don't expect WiFi connections onboard U.S. flights until the latter part of 2006, if then. Whichever carrier earns the right to begin rolling out new in-flight broadband connections will enjoy huge pent-up demand -- and face high levels of customer skepticism. It's not clear how popular the Boeing service will be at its current pricing levels, since even committed business users may balk at charges of $10 or more to send and receive inflight email. And the uneven record of services like JetConnect and Tenzing may keep some laptops in the overhead compartment until a fully evolved in-flight service takes off.
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung