Voice And Data Up In The Air

Despite fears of intolerably uncomfortable flights, voice calling and Internet access are coming to commercial air travel. Here's what to expect and when to expect it.
The Players

Of the four companies likely to make hay from the U.S. bidding, only Connexion by Boeing has a currently-operating data service on commercial flights, and only on long-haul fights by non-U.S. carriers. The other three firms are OnAir, AirCell, and Verizon AirFone, each of which currently operates in a unique niche in the aeronautical telecom or data worlds.

Connexion by Boeing. Connexion uses a satellite downlink to provide access. It's service is installed on an estimated 200 planes operated by seven airlines, including extensive long-haul routes run by Lufthansa. Two more airlines will be added soon, while more are committed for future deployment. Connexion has a slight incumbent benefit as a division of airplane maker Boeing.

The service offers 5 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, although each user may be throttled to lower download speeds. Voice-over-IP is a popular use for the service, which can cost $10 to $35 per flight depending on payment plan and flight duration. Corporations and hotspot aggregators like iPass and Boingo have cut deals with Connexion for slightly reduced rates using an existing login identity.

While Connexion hasn’t formally stated it will bid on the air-to-ground spectrum, they do plan to add voice service once regulatory issues are resolved. Connexion’s Wyse expects this won’t happen until late 2006 or into 2007.

OnAir. Satellite-based rival OnAir is a joint venture formed early this year from the assets of Tenzing, an early Connexion competitor that was formed by ex-Boeing employees, along with Airbus and SITA, a European airline-owned systems integrator.

Tenzing offered some services for private planes and had a dial-up to ISDN speed domestic U.S. service for a brief time that offered e-mail and instant messaging. These services were discontinued.

OnAir is in a holding pattern at the moment as its satellite partner Inmarsat launches fourth-generation broadband “birds” with beam-focusing abilities. The second of three satellites launched in early November, but shakedown will take some time. OnAir expects limited aeronautic broadband to be turned on by late 2006, said its CEO George Cooper; this will allow them to offer GSM-based cellular voice service in Europe.

OnAir will offer data services via modules that will ultimately offer 432 Kbps each per plane, with longer-haul aircraft having two or four modules (864 Kbps or 1.7 Mbps). Cooper expected that British Midlands (BMI) and TAP Portugal would be first out of the gate with GSM.

Cooper said that OnAir wouldn’t be part of the U.S. spectrum auctions but could partner with a winning bidder to allow overseas flights to hand off from expensive satellite to cheaper ground bandwidth.

AirCell. US-based AirCell has a long history of operating air-to-ground telecommunications stations across the country for private flights. The company has an advantage, said CEO Jack Blumenstein: As an equipment maker, they’ll benefit from selling gear to a winning spectrum bidder even if their bid fails.

AirCell would move rapidly into the market if they win. “We are in discussion with beta-launch airlines with beginning trials late next year and very early 2007,” AirCell CEO Blumenstein said. He expects commercial offerings by mid-2007 with the current schedule. He added that he expects to partner any service they offer with other providers that use satellite or non-U.S. air-to-ground services.

“The technology and the customers and the market are ready to go. We are pushing hard at the FCC so we can move into trials,” he said.

AirCell plans to use the EV-DO Revision A standard as the data carrier to transmit and receive data between air and ground. This newer version of EV-DO supports more than 3 Mbps in this manner.

Verizon AirFone. Verizon AirFone has the incumbent advantage -- it still has seatback phones on many airliners and has had no airborne competitors for several years. Calls from seatbacks and armrests over the U.S. are almost entirely made over their existing network.

Verizon AirFone will retain a sliver of frequency for use with their older technology for calling regardless of the auction’s outcome, but the company is eager to upgrade services. Bill Pallone, president of Verizon AirFone, said he expects it would take about a year from the close of an FCC auction to have equipment manufactured, tested in the air, and up and running on a commercial basis.

Pallone says Verizon is well positioned to bid in the auction, and OnAir’s Cooper noted that in a “kind of perfect storm scenario,” Verizon could win the full bandwdith in the auction.

Verizon AirFone has a significant advantage on the many planes already equipped with their service, as Pallone said the upgrade to a data service would typically be made during a normal overnight stay rather than in a longer maintenance window. A new antenna will need to be added on the plane’s belly.

Pallone expects at least 2.4 Mbps connections to the ground through a network of 130 to 150 base stations. Even with a number of planes in the air connecting to the same base stations, Pallone said, “we feel the user will experience very high speeds, certainly comparable to what you’d get DSL-wise or in a hotel room.” He noted, “The speeds will be more than sufficient and robust to hold up a VPN connection through a firewall.”

While bullish on VoIP over their data offering, Pallone expects that Wi-Fi will come way ahead of cellular offerings; his belief is that the FAA, FCC, and cellular operator issues may take “a few years to go through.”

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