Friday, December 07, 2007

The very next future: Surfing on a plane

Passengers may soon hear a new in-flight announcement: “You can now log on.”
Aircell’s chief executive, Jack Blumenstein, with antenna gear that will be placed on the exterior of planes. Aircell has already arranged partnerships with American Airlines and Virgin America.
Starting next week and over the next few months, several United States airlines will test Internet service on their planes.

On Tuesday, JetBlue Airways will begin offering a free e-mail and instant messaging service on one of its planes, while American Airlines, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines plan to offer broader Web access in coming months, probably at a cost around $10 a flight.

“I think 2008 is the year when we will finally start to see in-flight Internet access become available,” said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research, “but I suspect the rollout domestically will take place in a very measured way.” “In a few years time,” he added, “if you get on a flight that doesn’t have Internet access, it will be like walking into a hotel room that doesn’t have TV.”

The airlines’ goal is to turn their planes into the equivalent of wireless hot spots once they reach cruising altitude. These services will not be available on takeoff or landing.

Virgin America even plans to link the technology to its seat-back entertainment system, enabling passengers who are not traveling with laptops or smart phones to send messages on a flight.

The network can potentially be used as well for communications within the plane, like food and drink orders — something Virgin America already does with its seat-back system.

While the technology could allow travelers to make phone calls over the Internet, most carriers say they currently have no such plans. Many travelers find the prospect of phone calls much less palatable than having a seatmate quietly browsing e-mail.

Onboard phone calls are “one of those ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ types of technologies,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “The last thing you want is to be in a crowded tube at 35,000 feet for two or three hours with some guy going on and on about his trip to Vegas.”

While companies have been promising airborne Internet service for years — the aircraft maker Boeing offered a system that was adopted by a few international carriers but is now defunct — JetBlue will be the first carrier in the United States to offer access to the Web, at least in a limited way.

Yet if a test flight on Wednesday is any indication of the challenges that airlines and their technology partners face in trying to offer Internet connections at 35,000 feet and 500-plus miles an hour, travelers can initially expect travails that recall the days of dial-up access — slower and more prone to glitches than connections on the ground.

“Sometimes you just have to put things out there and see what happens when people try to use it,” said Nate Quigley, chief executive of LiveTV, a JetBlue subsidiary responsible for the airline’s Internet service as well as its in-flight entertainment system. “We’ll find the bugs and eventually get them worked out.”

After years of false starts, LiveTV is one of several companies aiming to introduce in-flight Internet access in 2008. LiveTV’s air-to-ground cellular system, however, functions only over the continental United States. It also involves a hand-off process between cell sites as a plane travels across the country.

Since LiveTV’s proprietary network uses spectrum space licensed from the Federal Communications Commission that was once reserved for seat-back phones, it does not interfere with cellphone service on the ground. But the hand-off process does create the potential for the airborne equivalent of a dropped call — a problem that occurred during the test on Wednesday.

It is also one of the reasons JetBlue is not charging passengers to log on.

“Why charge for something that doesn’t work very well yet?” said David G. Neeleman, JetBlue’s founder and chairman, a self-described BlackBerry addict.

JetBlue and LiveTV are betting that their messaging capability is more important to travelers than surfing the Web, which requires more bandwidth and therefore a fee.

But other companies are convinced that plenty of travelers will pay for more robust Web access. That view is bolstered by a recent survey by Forrester Research that found that 26 percent of leisure travelers would pay $10 for Internet access on a two-to-four-hour flight and 45 percent would pay that on a flight longer than four hours.

Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times
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