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Lufthansa Passengers Surf The Friendly Skies

Boeing's Connexion service uses satellite to let passengers access the Internet

Lufthansa AG will offer airline passengers a broadband Internet connection service starting early next year. The service, called Connexion, is supplied by Boeing Co. and will put in-flight passengers in touch with E-mail, work applications, and streaming entertainment, Boeing officials say.

British Airways plc is expected to follow on Lufthansa's heels, and both Scandinavian Airlines System and Japan Airlines System Corp. are reviewing the service, Boeing says.

"We'll have a full-scale launch in the first quarter of 2004," says Darrin Luther, senior manager of satellite communication systems for Connexion. The service is likely to be priced between $25 and $35 per flight segment, he says.

So why isn't such a service already part of flying the friendly skies? Because it requires the coordination of several dissimilar technologies. One of the key pieces of the service is 275,000 lines of code Luther's development team produced for governing the Connexion service's modem on an airliner. The modem dials up multiple connections for passengers by tying the plane's Ethernet local area network to the satellite transmission antennas on the aircraft. "It took 18 months to get to that point," Luther says.

The modem is tied to two phased-array antennas pointed at a geostationary satellite, one that orbits the Earth in such a way that it appears to be in a fixed position above a given spot. The antennas can be adjusted constantly to track the position of the satellite. One antenna sends data to the satellite, which relays the data communication to a data center on the ground. The center provides a link to the Internet. When the flow is reversed--say, when a passenger is seeking content off the Internet--the satellite sends data from the ground center to the second antenna.


A technician installs antennas for Boeing's in-flight Connexion Internet service on a Lufthansa plane
By keeping the antennas pointed toward the satellite, data communications can remain constant, even if the aircraft is on a cross-country, trans-Atlantic, or trans-Pacific flight. The tracking has to be done "within very tight requirements, so that transmissions from the airliner don't interfere with other satellites," Luther says.

Passengers with laptops or other devices will be linked to an onboard server through a wireless connection or an Ethernet plug-in at their seats. The service is coordinated by Iona Technologies plc's Orbix integration broker, a software traffic manager that can deal with subsystems--such as the network router, modem, and server apps on the aircraft--even if they're written in different computer languages. Boeing selected Orbix because of its "speed, performance, and throughput," Luther says.

Passengers will be able to sign up for the service at an airline portal before flying. Boeing will operate two data centers, one in Colorado and one in Switzerland, to supply access to the Internet for Connexion users.

Lufthansa plans to add the service to its 80 long-haul passenger planes, including Airbus A340 and 330 airliners, as well as its Boeing 747s. British Airways is considering adding it to flights between New York and London, and Japan Airlines and SAS will selectively install the service on their long-range fleets.

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