Wi-Fi Takes To The Air - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

April 19, 2004

The company is pursuing partnerships with terrestrial service providers that will allow their customers to use their ID and password to access the Connexion service and be billed by their existing service provider.

Connexion has already announced preliminary agreements with T-Systems, the Deutsche Telekom subsidiary that provides corporate Internet access services, including wireless services, and StarHub, a Singapore-based service provider.

Airlines will use Connexion to do more than just provide Internet access to passengers. The technology can also deliver in-flight airline applications.

One idea being tested is to use the network to connect the aircraft with on-the-ground medical facilities. They could provide remote diagnoses in the event a passenger takes ill. Currently, decisions about whether to land or not are often based on partial information at best.

"If the [passenger's] situation is serious, you obviously want to get to the ground as quickly as possible," Schwinn says. "But if you're wrong [about it being serious], you just spent a lot of money."

He believes many of the applications built for the technology will relate to the fact that "these are very expensive assets that spend most of their working life out of contact." Tracking and mobile telemetry applications seem like naturals.

Schwinn believes there is also an opportunity for airlines to provide enhanced customer service using Connexion. For example, in the event of a flight delay, an onboard system could use the Connexion wireless link to automatically re-book connecting flights for passengers.

Schwinn believes the improvements airlines can make in customer service by exploiting Connexion will have an impact similar to what total quality management (TQM) had in the auto industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Connexion system is also designed to pipe video content to existing in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems. It will use some of the satellite capacity to rebroadcast from four to 12 channels of video, which the aircraft can download as streaming video in MPEG format.

"What we're focusing on is bringing up live content," Schwinn explains. "You won't find us rebroadcasting the History channel. It doesn't need to be shown live. We'll bring up news, sports, financial news -- things that will be fresh."

Some airline IFE systems already include TV content, of course, but it's usually pre-recorded, though JetBlue is an exception. It shows satellite based DireTV channels on its planes.

Singapore Airlines will be the first to launch the Connexion video service. Others airlines will follow. Schwinn admits that for passengers outside North America, this kind of live TV content is probably less important.

Given that fact, it's hard to understand why so much of the available bandwidth is to be given over to video, apparently at the expense of Internet access -- especially when Schwinn confirms that Internet access is by far the most important application.

"The research we've done confirms that in various other places, Internet access [is in very high demand]," Schwinn says. "Travelers will pick hotels, for example, based on availability of high-speed connectivity. That drives traffic. So, yes, we see connectivity as the killer app."

If it's the killer app, why not devote more resources to it and boost the connection speed. Some early users of the on-train Wi-Fi service offered by the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) in Silicon Valley expressed reservations about the speed of that service.

"These users like things to be as fast as they can possibly be," CCJPA senior planner Jim Allison told us. "So while some are just happy to have it at any speed, some are saying, 'Gee, this is great, but why can't it be faster?'"

Connexion customers will likely be no different -- pleased at first just to have it, but soon frustrated by the slow speed.

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