Coming soon: onboard broadband

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iol scitech aug 15 inflight internet AFP 'I like getting on my computer and chatting on Facebook and talking to my friends, checking my e-mail and getting some work done.'

Washington - Airline passengers pining for faster in-flight internet access anywhere in the world – even over the oceans – are about to get their wish as satellite operators find success where Boeing failed a decade ago.

Stronger, more focused signals from spacecraft lofted by providers such as Intelsat will replace cobbled-together connections meant for cellphones and television broadcasts. Costs will fall, too, eventually making onboard broadband a free amenity to win travellers’ loyalty, industry executives say.

The technology is poised to bring sweeping changes in airborne wi-fi now marked by slow downloads, dead zones and scant public enthusiasm.

ViaSat, whose service will debut on JetBlue Airways aircraft next month, promises more satellite-delivered bandwidth for each passenger than current market leader Gogo can offer to an entire plane.

“Ten years ago, we used to use dial-up; nobody does that any more,” said Tim Mahoney, chief executive of the aerospace unit of Honeywell International, a satellite hardware supplier.

“That evolution that we’ve gone through in our home setting is going to take place on the aircraft.”

So-called spot beams from the new satellites deliver a more concentrated signal than those blanketing a region with TV images. There’s enough bandwidth for scores of fliers to share, with moving jets handed seamlessly from one beam to another. It’s akin to connecting a coffee shop full of wi-fi users – if the store were zipping through the stratosphere.

Inmarsat, which will pipe its signal through Honeywell equipment, plans to girdle the globe with three spot-beam satellites launched by next year. Intelsat expects its first Epic satellite in space in 2015. By then, American economy airliner JetBlue planned to have ViaSat’s wi-fi on all its planes, airline chief executive Dave Barger said this week.

In-flight internet was available on only about 40 percent of the US and Canadian airline fleets, said Jim Breen, a William Blair & Co analyst. Usage is even less: satellite provider Global Eagle Entertainment estimates that only about 5 percent of fliers on internet-enabled planes pay to hop online.

“When the plane lands, almost everybody immediately pulls out their phones,” said Mark Dankberg, chief executive of ViaSat. “That gives you a sense of how many people would use it if it were better.”

Cory Levy, co-founder and chief operating officer of mobile application company One, is part of that unsatisfied group. He buys wi-fi on only about half of the weekly flights he makes between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“Fifty percent of the time, it works really well and probably 50 percent of the time on the SF to LA flight I can’t even get Gmail to load,” Levy said. “It’s sort of like a hit or miss.”

Aerial wi-fi was kicked around for years as a concept before Boeing introduced Connexion, a service sold to airlines to deliver broadband via a global satellite network.

Unveiled in 2000, the programme faltered as travel slumped after the September 11 terror attacks, and Boeing pulled the plug in 2006.

That left a void filled by Gogo, whose system of ground towers and cellphone spectrum grabbed the largest share of the US in-flight internet market, serving carriers including American Airlines and United Airlines. Gogo charges fees such as $14 (R138) for all-day service.

Panasonic Avionics, Global Eagle and others jumped in, too, knitting together systems with satellites designed for direct-to-home television.

Like cellphone technology, the older spacecraft had limits on broadband speed. Gogo’s system provides a signal only over land, creating hours-long Web blackouts on over-water flights.

“When you’re stuck going far over the Atlantic for nine hours, there’s only so many movies you can watch,” said Matt Kepnes, who flies to Europe and south-east Asia about once a month for his travel blog, Nomadic Matt.

“I like getting on my computer and chatting on Facebook and talking to my friends, checking my e-mail and getting some work done.”

Gogo planned to migrate to satellite to help expand overseas and boost speed, said chief executive Michael Small.

“Air-to-ground was a unique situation that worked just right in the US for us to get the early lead,” Small said. “But in the long run, it will be predominantly a satellite solution.”

Still unsettled are technological questions such as which spectrum is most efficient for in-flight internet, leaving airlines to weigh conflicting claims.

 

Airlines’ choices will lock them into one system or the other because antennas for the different bands aren’t compatible. The cost of equipment and aircraft downtime for installation precludes switching easily.

But still,

passengers would want to be connected in the air like they were on the ground – for free. New satellites would lower airlines’ internet cost to the equivalent of a beverage and bag of peanuts per passenger, prodding carriers to offer the service to everyone, he said.

“You go to Starbucks and you can get free wi-fi, but you don’t feel obligated to use it,” ViaSat’s Dankberg said. “It should become clear fairly soon that free is what people want.” – The Washington Post

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