Roger, Tango, WLAN

Widespread adoption of wireless LAN services aboard European commercial aircrafts could become a reality following German and U.K. aviation authority approval for 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) technology.

Analysts reckon that onboard access to email and the Web could be especially appealing to business travelers -- which may be music to the ears of cash-strapped airlines, since this is a demographic they are particularly keen to encourage to fly more since the September 11 attacks and economic downturn put a serious damper on corporate travel.

Germany’s Luftfahrt-Bundesamt and the U.K.'s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have given the green light for aircraft to implement in-flight wireless LAN technologies such as those offered by Connexion By Boeing. Until now, this service has only been authorized for use by operators of private and U.S. government aircraft.

According to Richard Dineen, research director for wireless at Ovum Ltd., the Connexion service uses smart antennas to enable connections between satellites and aircraft. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) provides the access points in the aircraft cabin that link a user's laptop to the satellite network (see When Will WLAN Get Its Wings?).

Rival offerings, such as Tenzing Communications Inc.'s, use a variety of access networks on the ground and in the air but are unable to offer a permanent connection when in flight, Dineen says.

German airline Lufthansa is aiming to install the Connexion technology in 80 of its aircraft by early 2004, following trials earlier this year (see Vivato's Switch Bitch). According to Connexion spokesman Terence Scott, British Airways, Japan Airlines, and Scandinavian Airline Systems have also announced their intent to install the service on long-haul aircraft.

British Airways began a three-month trial of the technology in February on board a Boeing 747-400 aircraft from London to New York within its business class section. The company declined to give details on future plans, but spokeswoman Cathy West hinted that today’s decision will pave the way for future mass rollout. “We have had to await authorization from the Civil Aviation Authority in order to introduce further technology, and we will now be looking at how we can work together,” she tells Unstrung.

Analysts are agreed that wireless LAN services on board aircraft may help drive business adoption of the technology. “Regulatory approval is clearly a big breakthrough, as this could be a sound business model,” comments Ovum's Dineen. “Airlines will be able to target a well defined, addressable market that is reasonably price-insensitive. It is a captive audience. They won’t have a problem attracting interest.”

“The biggest problems to wireless LAN use on board aircrafts are the regulatory issues, and these seem to have been overcome. It makes sense to offer these services to business class passengers,” agrees Michael Wall, wireless research analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “It will give airlines a competitive edge in the niche business market. I would expect more airlines to follow suit.”

Wall adds that the service will be free of any interoperability issues when running in the 2.4GHz frequency, but could hit problems if airlines implement 802.11a (54-Mbit/s over 5GHz) technology. “There could be problems if they decide to move to the 5GHz spectrum,” he warns. “Certain military and satellite spectrums use the 5GHz band, and that could become an issue.”

— Justin "Luftfahrt" Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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