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Broadband aims for mile-high club

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing says it has teamed up with German airline Lufthansa to bring high-speed Internet access to passengers who fly between Frankfurt and Washington D.C.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing says it's just a year away from launching a commercial broadband service for passengers on its planes.

The company said Tuesday that it has teamed with German airline Lufthansa to bring high-speed Internet access to passengers who fly between Frankfurt and Washington Dulles International Airport.

The trial starts Wednesday and is planned to run for three months. If it is a success, Boeing is hopeful of launching the service commercially in partnership with several other airlines by early 2004.

"We're pretty excited about the trial. It's a chance to see how consumers use the service and to find out what they think about it," said Scott Carson, a senior vice president at Boeing.

"We're planning a full commercial launch in 12 months...and our business model is to have in excess of 4,000 planes equipped with the service within 10 years," Carson said.

Boeing's service would allow passengers to check their e-mail, surf the Web and possibly even do videoconferencing while in the air--a capability that is likely to particularly appeal to business travelers.

The airborne broadband connection would be provided by a geostationary satellite. This gives a 20mbps downlink from the Internet to the plane, and a 1mbps uplink. Within the plane, the bandwidth is distributed either wirelessly, or via a wired LAN.

This asymmetric pipe reflects the fact that people usually consume more bandwidth when downloading information, such as Web pages, than when sending data. One application where this isn't the case, though, is videoconferencing. But Carson said that two-way video did work--as long as several passengers didn't attempt it at the same time.

"A connection of 156kbps for each user should be highly achievable. We've been trialing the service on a test plane, and with 30 people aggressively surfing the Web, the connection speed never fell below 156kbps," Carson said.

It's not yet clear how much a passenger might expect to pay to get broadband in the air. But Carson said that in discussions with one airline, there had been talk of charging $35 for access during a whole flight.

Several other companies are also taking an interest in providing airplanes with broadband connections. These include satellite operator Inmarsat, which said in April that its Swift64 service would give airplane passengers connection speeds of up to 64kbps.

ZDNet UK's Graeme Wearden reported from London.