Faster Web Surfing Hits the Skies

On five of its long-haul Boeing 767 aircraft, Air Canada this week started providing the same kind of e-mail and Web surfing performance that passengers would experience through a standard dial-up connection on the ground. It's the first such service available to commercial airline passengers anywhere in the world, the carrier said.

Analysts agreed that Montreal-based Air Canada is the first carrier to give passengers onboard Internet connections that match ground dial-up speeds of 56K bit/sec., but they emphasized that all data sent to and from the airplane is still limited by low-speed air-to-ground links that operate at 9.6K bit/sec. on domestic flights and 2.4K bit/sec. on international flights.

Dylan Brooks, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. in New York, said Air Canada's test of its Internet in the Air service marks the "first deployment" of such an airborne Internet system, but he stressed that due to the low-speed downlinks, "it provides limited [Web] content."

The airline plans to test the performance of the system, provided by Tenzing Communications Inc. in Seattle, for six months, according to Joanne Ward, Air Canada's director of design and product management.

Though Air Canada won't charge for the service, Ward said the airline wants to use the test to evaluate service packages and pricing options, which will be key factors in determining whether the service is adopted by passengers in North America. Those travelers rarely use the high-priced seat-back telephones from Oak Brook, Illinois-based GTE Airfone Inc., which can cost a dollar per minute.

"It has to be less than Airfone charges. . . . But I'm not sure that we can get to the level of $19.95 a month for unlimited access [charged by Internet service providers] for dial-up connections on the ground," Ward said.

Phil Lemme, vice president of business technology at Tenzing, said the company has installed Pentium-based servers on the five Air Canada 767s. Each plane's server collects e-mail sent by passengers jacked into the seat-back phones at a speed of 56K bit/sec., compresses it and, at five- to 15-minute intervals, "exchanges bundled and compressed" traffic with ground stations.

Lemme said Tenzing uses proprietary compression protocols to boost throughput. Web access is provided to passengers through a 10GB cache of popular Web sites loaded onto the aircraft before takeoff via tape, with periodic updates sent from Tenzing ground servers throughout the flight. Because of the caching system, passengers won't be able to go to every site on the Web, nor will all links on available sites be active, Lemme added.

Air Canada's Ward said the ability of the Tenzing system to use the already-installed Airfone infrastructure made installation easy. "We didn't have to do much to get it up and running, just the installation of the server."

Lemme said Tenzing has a contract to provide a LAN-based service for Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., which plans to outfit 62 of its aircraft with high-speed 1.5M bit/sec. LANs linked to passengers' seats. That service is slated to start in April.

Compression will play a key role for Cathay Pacific, Lemme said, since the air-to-ground link is currently a 2.4K bit/sec. connection via a satellite operated by London-based Inmarsat Holdings Ltd. - though Inmarsat does plan to start offering 64K bit/sec. service late next year. While Air Canada manually loads the Web cache on each aircraft, Cathay Pacific will use wireless LANs to zap the information to its planes.

Starting next year, The Boeing Co. in Seattle has plans to provide high-speed service to airlines. The Connexion by Boeing service will include television as well as e-mail and Web access using broadband satellites.

Ward said Air Canada talked to Boeing, but "their [service] is out in the future, and they were not ready to do a type trial at this time."

Jupiter's Brooks said Tenzing has "a time-to-market advantage over Boeing, but it's only narrowband today."

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