IP television takes off on airplanes

Singapore Airlines launches in-flight Internet Protocol television service, while airplane makers say cell phone calls will follow next year.

3 min read
Internet Protocol television service was launched on Singapore Airlines flights over the weekend, bringing four television channels to passengers over a wireless IP network on planes.

Connexion by Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer's division charged with bringing IP services to airlines, said that Singapore Airlines is the first carrier to launch such a service.

Singapore Airlines has an exclusive deal for the IP television service for now. However, other carriers "are lining up" to adopt the service once the exclusivity period expires, according to Connexion.

Meanwhile, half of all Wi-Fi enabled devices taken on planes with a Wi-Fi network are logging on, Connexion director of wireless channel Adla Hendry estimated during her keynote address Monday at London's two-day Mobility Summit.

The Mobility Summit was organized by the European Technology Forum, which is owned by ZDNet UK parent company CNET Networks.

Connexion now provides Wi-Fi on more than 60 aircraft owned by a number of carriers including SAS, JML, Singapore, Lufthansa and Austrian airlines.

Given the popularity of on-board connectivity, more services are due to follow, Hendry said.

"We are now enabling GSM voice services on board, by installing pico cells (small mobile base stations) on some planes," she said. "We are turning what is usually downtime into productive time."

Siemens is already developing a light-weight GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) pico cell and has been contracted to provide this to OnAir, a joint venture launched in February between Airbus and transport application developer SITA.

According to OnAir, the system will let passengers use their mobile phones during flights without disrupting aircraft systems and will be ready for any Airbus A320 aircraft flying on routes in Western Europe by the second half of 2006.

At Boeing, Wi-Fi was not the easiest project to get off the ground.

"Boeing had to prove that the Wi-Fi and the satellite link would not interfere with systems on the planes," Hendry said. "We had to get approval from airline authorities and from radio communications authorities because the planes enter many different airspaces; we had to get authority from 100 countries."

Hendry noted that leisure travelers are now overtaking business travelers as users of IP services on flights, hence the introduction of IP television, though passengers still need their own laptop to use the service. Some airlines, said Hendry, are looking at delivering IP television to seatback screens and are even considering the possibility of flip-down keyboards built into seatbacks.

But there are still concerns over security--and from unexpected places. "We have two corporate customers that refuse to use Wi-Fi for security reasons," said Hendry. "One of them makes Wi-Fi equipment. Now that should make us nervous if their own employees are not allowed to use it." Hendry declined to name the manufacturer.

Security concerns appear to be arising in other quarters too. This week Wired reported that U.S. law enforcement officials, fearful that terrorists will exploit emerging in-flight broadband services to remotely activate bombs or coordinate hijackings, are asking regulators for the power to begin eavesdropping on any passenger's Internet use within 10 minutes of obtaining court authorization.

Matt Loney of ZDNet UK reported from London.