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In-flight Internet: Grounded for life?

It's been years since Boeing tried for lift-off with its Connexion service. Yet here we are still today, with barely a hint of airborne Wi-Fi. Photos: Putting Wi-Fi in the sky

If Wi-Fi is available at thousands of Internet cafes on even the most remote beaches in Southeast Asia, why isn't it ubiquitous on airplanes in the United States?

For those travelers who desperately want to know, the answer is that it's nearly here.

Earlier this week, two major U.S. carriers, Southwest and American Airlines, both announced onboard Internet trials timed to commence later this year.

This follows JetBlue's already-launched, though minimal, service, as well as previous announcements for trials from Alaska Airlines and Virgin America.

Southwest said it would begin trials this summer with high-speed Internet service on four of its 737s. Alaska has said it would launch a trial in the same rough timeframe on one plane. Also this summer, American will launch onboard Internet service on its entire fleet of coast-to-coast 767s, and Virgin America plans on rolling out the service on all of its planes.

Yet, years after Boeing launched its much-vaunted Connexion service, which for a time brought fully functional high-speed connectivity to a series of foreign carriers, many passengers wonder why their countless hours spent aloft are still mostly Internet-free.

According to Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst at Forrester Research who recently issued a report on the subject, the answer is that we're about to see a sea change that will likely bring Internet on board most major U.S. carriers.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that it's not going to happen overnight.

"It will probably be two years or so before we see the vast majority of aircraft in the U.S. with this," Harteveldt said. "But I do expect it will be on just about every airline."

"It will probably be two years or so before we see the vast majority of aircraft in the U.S. with (Wi-Fi on board). But I do expect it will be on just about every airline."
--Henry Harteveldt, analyst, Forrester Research

So why are we still waiting?

It turns out, according to Harteveldt and other industry observers, that the hype surrounding Connexion, which launched in 2004 with initial service on Lufthansa German Airlines, was never quite matched by realistic business considerations.

One of the major problems, according to Wendy Campanella, who runs business development for Row 44, which is providing satellite Internet service to both Southwest and Alaska Airlines, is that Boeing's system was simply too heavy.

"Their system weighed 400 pounds," Campanella said. "Basically, the size and weight of their system meant that it was only viable on wide-body (dual-aisle) aircraft."

And that was fine if you were flying Lufthansa intercontinentally. But the biggest air-traffic market in the world is the U.S. domestic market, and here, most planes are narrow-body, single-aisle planes that can't support equipment the size of Connexion's.

Harteveldt agreed.

"Connexion by Boeing was developed starting in 2000," Harteveldt said. Initially, "United, American, and Delta were going to be business partners, but after 9/11, they pulled out. So Boeing had to develop it alone. (It) was developed for twin-aisle planes like the 747. It was not optimized or sized down for single-aisle planes like the 757 or 737, and those types of planes make up the majority of planes flying in North America."

And that meant the service was doomed. Indeed, in 2006, Boeing pulled the plug on the project, and since then, there have been only the slightest ripples on the onboard Internet pond.

Harteveldt said that the lack of such service is not because airlines or passengers don't want it. In fact, he said, passengers are demanding it, and airlines are eager to provide it.

The problem, however, has been that getting such systems up and running is cumbersome and expensive, and there's no single standard.

For example, JetBlue, American, and Virgin America have selected air-to-ground systems that rely on wide networks of installed towers across the continental U.S. Southwest and Alaska have chosen satellite service from Row 44 that piggy-backs on existing Hughes Network Systems infrastructure.

Campanella argued that the satellite option is superior because it provides 30 megabits per second of capacity per aircraft, with an average expected throughput of 100 kilobits per second per user.

Further, she argued that satellite offers the promise of continued connectivity even when flying over water, something Harteveldt said would be important on domestic routes such as Houston to Miami, or from the northeast to Miami.

That thinking is one of the reasons Southwest went with Row 44's satellite service.

"We think it's a better solution," said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger. "What you get with satellite is more customers are able to use the Internet at one time than they would with air-to-ground, and depending on the routing of the aircraft, you're able to take (it) over water."

But air-to-ground systems won't leave such passengers Internet-less, said Jack Blumenstein, CEO of AirCell, the company providing service to American and Virgin America.

In fact, he said that AirCell worked with American to ensure that even planes flying 200 or 300 miles offshore would still be able to get a strong enough signal to provide passengers with connectivity.

While Blumenstein recognizes the benefits of satellite service--he said AirCell provides it to corporate jet clients flying internationally--the company decided to focus on an air-to-ground system in the U.S. because the spectrum employed for such service uses a low-cost, off-the-shelf infrastructure.

He also said he feels that satellite technology is hit-and-miss, given the vagaries of trying to shoot a signal at a satellite 25,000 miles away from an aircraft traveling hundreds of miles an hour.

"If airlines price it to be too expensive, they just won't see the take-up rate."

But whatever option the airlines choose, it will take time to get most passengers surfing the Web while flying.

"You have to have either the satellite network in place or the air-to-ground network of cell towers in place," Harteveldt said. "You have to develop the hardware and software, get it certified by both the (U.S.) FCC and FAA, and then you have to sell it."

What's clear, though, according to people like Harteveldt and Campanella, is that the public unquestionably wants Internet connectivity, even if that means removing one of the last places where one can escape from work.

For example, Row 44, which has only two announced commercial airline partners, is funded entirely on the promise of a vibrant onboard Internet market, Campanella said.

"The numbers we've seen," she said, "are that on the order of 80 percent of business travelers (want the service) and better than 50 percent of regular travelers would put Internet as the No. 1 or No. 2 enhancement (they want) for flights."

And for its part, Southwest is hoping that widespread demand and adoption of onboard Internet service will mean steady business for the airline.

"We...hope that the Internet will be expected on airplanes just as it's expected in a hotel or a coffee shop," Southwest's Eichinger said. "We're on the brink of it, and once other carriers get it on their aircraft, we hope it will be something customers come to expect and enjoy."

But one problem that will surely plague the airline industry as it crawls forward with such rollouts is coming up with proper business plans and pricing.

In his report, Harteveldt suggested that airlines should not be afraid to charge for onboard Internet service, even if customers would rather get it for free.

But in an interview, he said that the proper pricing structure is key to maximizing customer adoption.

"A huge factor is going to be the price point," Harteveldt said. "If airlines price it to be too expensive, they just won't see the take-up rate. The lower the price, the more people will use it. If you price it much above $10 for coast to coast, you probably will turn off a lot of people."

That's why he said he was disappointed to see that American plans to charge $12.95 for the service.

"I think they'd see a substantially higher take-up rate if they priced it at $9.95," he said.

But one way or another, what is clear for the first time, is that consumers are nearing the tipping point where in-flight Wi-Fi becomes something that can be counted on. And for the countless business travelers who would no doubt enjoy being able to get online while they fly, it couldn't come too soon.

Harteveldt's only words of wisdom?

"Have faith," he said, "and have patience."