Boeing polishes in-flight Wi-Fi offering

Mobile information service provider Connexion by Boeing is to announce its choice of suppliers for the Wi-Fi access points next...

Mobile information service provider Connexion by Boeing is to announce its choice of suppliers for the Wi-Fi access points next week. 

The company will use the Wasp (Wireless Access Service Point) from Miltope, a rugged device specially designed for planes and based on the Colubris Networks CN1054 access device. The planes will be connected to the internet via satellite at 20Mbps (bits per second) downstream and 1Mbps upstream.

Although that system, which will be deployed next year, will be designed for wireless data, with no provisions for ensuring the quality of VoIP calls, Connexion is looking toward VoIP as a way to offer voice service on board, according to Stan Deal, vice president of global network sales at Connexion, in Seattle.

"We see voice as a formal offering as part of our service evolution, subject to clearing the regulatory approval," Deal said. That offering may appear as early as 2005.

Connexion is exploring two possible systems for allowing voice calls from mobile phones while in flight. Over a wireless Lan, passengers could use Wi-Fi VoIP phones, which are available from Cisco Systems and other suppliers. Dual-mode phones with both Wi-Fi and cellular capability, which are also on the way from several suppliers, could allow travellers to carry just one phone.

Alternatively, Connexion by Boeing might install a special "picocell", a small, aeroplane-safe version of the cells found on towers on the ground, to serve passengers on the plane, who would use conventional mobile phones. The picocell would have a gateway to convert the calls to VoIP and send them over the satellite uplink.

Regulation of VoIP carriers is now being studied by the US Federal Communications Commission, and Connexion has a team in Washington, DC, watching that process, Deal said. The company will also have to figure out how to ensure good enough quality of service for phone calls, because IP networks are designed primarily for data. Voice is more sensitive to delays than is data traffic.

The Miltope devices, which include integrated 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports, will allow airlines to hook up a server which will deliver special content to passengers over the Lan, said Bob Guidetti, senior director at Miltope. In addition to passenger services, the access points may be used by the airline for downloading and uploading information while the plane is at the terminal.

The Wasp also includes an integrated virtual private network server, a firewall with packet filtering and hardware-assisted data encryption, as well as user authentication via a separate server using IP Security, Layer 2 Tunnelling Protocol or Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol.

As many as five access points may be deployed in a Boeing 747, said Carl Blume, director of product marketing at Colubris.

Rolling out a full-featured access point such as Miltope's is probably a good strategy in these early days, according to IDC analyst Abner Germanow.

"The key at this point in the game is not efficiency but flexibility," Germanow said. "You may not really be sure how the applications running over these networks will evolve."

Miltope is starting out by delivering 11Mbps Wasps that use IEEE 802.11b technology. Next year it will provide Connexion with its upgraded product, which will support 802.11g and 802.11a, both of which are designed for a maximum 54Mbps carrying capacity.

Connexion already has deals with several airlines, including Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines Systems and Japan Airlines,  to offer in-flight internet services via wireless Lans.

Last year, Miltope began offering its devices for use on corporate jets.

Connexion expects to offer internet access priced from about $15 for short-haul domestic flights to about $30 for a long-haul trip.

Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service

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