Lufthansa and Cisco Put Wi-Fi in the Plane

By Eric Griffith

January 15, 2003

Fly the wireless skies: a test is in place in Lufthansa's Frankfurt to Washington D.C. flights providing passengers with in-the-air wireless Internet access.

At last, the days of your laptop being nothing more than a method of playing Minesweeper on airline flights may be coming to an end.

Deutsche Lufthansa AG is currently doing passenger trials of in-flight Wi-Fi- and Ethernet-based access to the Internet. Partnered with Boeing Company and Cisco Systems , the Lufthansa flight -- part of a project called FlyNet -- will travel from Frankfurt, Germany to Washington D.C and back for the next three months.

The plane in use is a Boeing 747-400 equipped with Connexion By Boeing, a system for providing high-speed, real-time data services via satellite. The network from Cisco includes five Cisco Aironet 350 Access Points, a Cisco 3640 Router, and nine digital switches for the hardwired Ethernet connections found in some seats in First Class and Business Class. The wireless, obviously, reaches everyone on the plane. The data throughput for users on the plan is about 3 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 128Kbps for uploads.

The service is initially free to any one on the Germany to US flights; Jonathan Hindle, strategic technology manager for the World Wide Mobile Team at Cisco, says that this trial is, in part, about finding out what people will pay for the service.

While anyone who has traveled on a flight in the last few years knows that laptops and cell phones must be turned off during take off and landing -- and that won't change just because of this trial -- the 802.11b network Cisco has installed in the plane causes no apparent problems. In fact, what Cisco had to do to get the WLAN equipment to meet airline regulations had little to do with technology.

"The thing we had to change was the housing on some of the boxes -- we had too much paint on them. They were a fire risk," says Hindle. The Cisco equipment also needed new power supplies to work with the voltage found in the Boeing craft.

The fixed Ethernet installed in some seats still turned out to be a massive undertaking. According to Hindle it required over 550 kilograms (1474 pounds) worth of additional wiring -- that's a lot of displaced passengers or luggage. Wireless solutions would shave that weight.

Lufthansa expects to put broadband in its entire intercontinental fleet over the next two years.

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