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With Boeing Gone, Vendors Eye In-Flight Connectivity Void

The cancellation of Boeing's Connexion in-flight Internet service could leave travelers left to choose from among less expensive, but relatively low-tech replacement services, like text messaging and e-mail access.

With Boeing formally dropping its Connexion in-flight Internet service, the future of commercial aircraft connectivity for passengers is shifting to vendors working on less robust solutions.

AirCell Inc. and JetBlue's LiveTV subsidiary have been working on in-flight connectivity in the U.S. while OnAir has focused on testing services in Europe.

"Wireless on board is a possibility down the road," said Bryan Baldwin, a JetBlue spokesman. "But there are no specific plans at this point." JetBlue's LiveTV, which currently offers and installs components for on-board entertainment, bid $7 million for a 1 MHz wireless license in June.

Baldwin noted that possible services would not necessarily consist of Internet browsing connectivity, but could include less expensive relatively low-tech services like text messaging and e-mail access.

Any products developed by LiveTV would have to be chosen by JetBlue before they could be installed. LiveTV also currently serves other airlines including Frontier Airlines, WestJet Airlines, AirTran Airways, and Australia's Virgin Blue Airlines.

AirCell has reported it plans to inaugurate its mobile phone-based service in 2007. The firm paid more than $31 million for its FCC wireless licenses. Like OnAir's cellular service, AirCell's solution would be less expensive than the approach taken by Connexion which utilized expensive and heavy satellite technologies. Press reports stated that Boeing' six-year venture may have cost as much as $1 billion.

A spokesman for OnAir on Friday said the firm is currently focusing its efforts on deploying its service in Western Europe. Asian markets would likely be next on its rollout agenda. "The U.S. is not a key focus at this time," he said.

OnAir, a partnership of Boeing competitor AirBus and air transport infrastructure provider SITA, has centered its research and development on the GSM and GPRS European cell phone standards. In the U.S. those standards are utilized by Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile. Verizon Wireless and Sprint are currently incompatible with GSM and GPRS.

OnAir maintains that its approach can be profitable. OnAir plans to launch its service in 2007 in Western Europe, probably for e-mail and text messaging functions. Data services would come later.

As for Boeing's Connexion, its future was on shaky ground from the time Boeing's new chairman and chief Executive Jim McNerney moved Connexion to the company's merger and acquisition unit earlier this year.

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