In-Flight Wi-Fi: On and Off

By Ed Sutherland

July 09, 2004

The slow rise in on-plane Wi-Fi deployments continues, but perhaps more important for safety is fast identification of devices that have their wireless signals deactivated.

As competition for in-flight Wi-Fi slowly heats up, a coalition of airline workers and consumer electronics makers hope to make the use of wireless gadgets by the flying public easier.

A 35-member working group, made up of wireless device and component makers, airlines, pilots and flight attendants, is developing an industry-wide "recommended practice" which will indicate -- to both consumers and airlines -- when wireless transmitting is disabled. It is expected to be complete by fall 2004.

"Many wireless devices can operate without transmitting, such as the use of a game player on a mobile phone or personal organizer on a wireless PDA," says Douglas Johnson, senior director of technology at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). However, "there is no consistent way to demonstrate that the device's transmitter is switched off."

"With the busy summer travel season underway and the increasing popularity of wireless portable electronics with both business and leisure travelers, now is the perfect time to reiterate the importance of creating a new industry standard that will help manage the use of these devices on board commercial aircraft," says Johnson.

Formed in 2003, the working group needs first to develop a symbol alerting users that wireless transmission is disabled, then to make it easier to toggle wireless functions on and off, and finally to encourage the adoption of the symbol and technology by airlines and wireless manufacturers.

"Some airlines are beginning to liberalize their policies regarding usage of wireless devices, and the CEA hopes to work with the airlines and other organizations as they develop and implement these changes," says Johnson.

The CEA needs to help ease the hassles for the wireless flying public because high-flying ISPs like Connexion by Boeing (obviously owned in part by plane maker Boeing) and Tenzing (backed by European aircraft builder Airbus) are trying to make wireless as integral to your flying experience as the tiny bags of peanuts. The two rivals are courting airlines to adopt their differing visions of in-flight wireless communications. The process is slow going.

Tenzing is enabling passengers of the Middle East's Emirates Airlines to use Wi-Fi to check their e-mail. As an option, The A340-500 Airbus jets will include an onboard server. The e-mail is then exchanged using the airplane's existing radio communication and bounced from a satellite to Tenzing's ground station. For laptop users, they'll need to download client software before taking off. Tenzing's e-mail system is also available on Cathay Pacific, Continental Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.

While Tenzing started off with a slow connection, it reportedly plans to increase the connection speed. By 2006, new satellite provider Inmarsat should provide 1.7Mbps.

The cost of Tenzing's service is $20, a noticeable difference from the $30 charged per flight for service by Connexion by Boeing. Connexion, however, provides airline passengers with full Wi-Fi-based Internet access, using satellite backhaul. At a reported $1 million per plane to deploy, Connexion's program may be a little too rich for U.S. based airlines. While American, United and Delta were part of the group which helped develop the system, all jumped ship following belt-tightening after the Sept. 11 events.

In May, Germany's Lufthansa became the first commercial air carrier to use the Connexion Wi-Fi system. It's also scheduled for use on airlines from Scandinavia, Singapore, Japan, and China.

Originally published on .

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