Surf the Friendly Skies

By Adam Stone

May 28, 2003

Getting a wireless Internet connection while flying long distances will soon be a reality with some airlines; companies like Sky Way plan to use in-flight Wi-Fi as part of a video-capturing 'black box' with consumer online access as a side bonus.

As he ponders future uses of 802.11 networks, Michael Farkas looks to the skies.

As the largest shareholder in Sky Way Communications Holding Corp. (formerly I-Teleco.com, Inc) , Farkas has been working to bring Wi-Fi into the air as a means of enhancing airline security. In his vision, cameras located on board an aircraft would gather continuous images of airborne activity, as a sort of visual equivalent of the flight-data recorder, or 'black box.' Then Wi-Fi connections would gather those digital images and relay them to earth.

But inflight Wi-Fi used for Homeland Security is only part of the picture. There's also a strong consumer component to Sky Way's business model. "Because we have so much additional bandwidth, we will make that available to people on the plane. It is not the main focus, but we believe it could be a big revenue stream for the company," said Farkas.

Could airborne Wi-Fi networks provide airline passengers with Internet browsing, e-mail and even streaming media? Farkas thinks so, and he is not alone. In April, Lufthansa and Connexion by Boeing, a business unit of The Boeing Company, announced that based on passenger usage and response, their three-month demonstration of in-flight Internet connectivity service had been a "resounding success." This week the two companies entered a definitive agreement to put Wi-Fi Internet connections in 80 Lufthansa aircraft.

During the demonstration period, Lufthansa made 802.11-based Internet connectivity available for free to passengers on its run from Frankfurt to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. Each flight averaged 50 to 80 simultaneous users, who typically accessed e-mail, corporate intranets and streaming media, according to Boeing spokesman Terrance Scott. "People were just looking to entertain themselves," he said.

Analyst say there could be merit in the idea, especially if an in-flight Wi-Fi connection could help take the edge off the tedium of long-distance air travel. "Captive audience, long flightsit's a great service to offer on a plane," said Julie Ask, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research.

Still, Boeing's test run raises some questions for Ask and other analysts. After all, the airline was literally giving the stuff away. "If the phone service they offer were free, sure I'd talk to people all the way from coast to coast and over the ocean," said Ask.

Scott said Boeing was aware of this concern, and did a second test, this one with British Airways. This time the carrier charged passengers roughly $30 to $35 for unlimited Wi-Fi use on flights from London and New York's JFK International Airport. The results of that trial won't be available until later this spring, but Scott said he expects them to show a ready acceptance of a pay-for-use 802.11 offering. "We see a pretty strong demand," he said.

The key to success here, Scott said, lies in the ability to make in-flight 802.11 as seamless as possible for the end user. People might want to check their e-mail while en route, but they will not want to change their browsing habits or (worse still!) reconfigure their settings. "People are willing to pay for these types of services, they see the value in there services, as long as the service is robust," said Scott.

Meanwhile, Sky Way has begun demonstrations of the security applications that it says will offer an even more immediate revenue stream. Using its Sky Way Aircraft wing, the Clearwater, Fla. firm met with members of Congress in early May to show them how an 802.11-driven in-flight monitoring system could work. In addition to providing real-time surveillance of all parts of the plane, the system also offered telephone service and Wi-Fi access to the Internet.

While Sky Way is putting the emphasis on its security applications, Farkas said he is convinced that consumer-side usage will provide a solid additional revenue stream, simple because a long-distance flight is so very boring.

"There definitely is an entertainment value that people are interested in," he said. "The market is definitely there."

802.11 Planet Conference Planes with Wi-Fi? What's next, 802.11-based subway cars? Hmmmm.... Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, June 25 - 27, 2003 at the World Trade Center Boston in Boston, MA. A panel of experts will talk about where 802.11 may appear in The Future of WLANs.



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