Boeing plans webbed aircraft

Connexion by Boeing delivers satellite Internet access, streamed video covering news, finance and sport at 35,000 feet

Boeing took time out today from aerospace schmoozing at Farnborough Airshow to talk about Connexion by Boeing. First announced in April, Connexion by Boeing -- the full name is apparently essential -- is a satellite Internet service that pipes 5 megabits/second to commercial aircraft, with a 1 megabits/second uplink.

Boeing plans to use the system to provide more than Web browsing. A selection of streamed video covering news, finance and sport will also be transmitted, and a separate part of the connection will be used for crew-to-ground links. Eventually, the company predicts, the aircraft itself will use the system to inform the operating company of technical snags and other issues that can be resolved on landing.

Passengers will access the system either through their laptops, which will plug in to sockets on the seats using USB or other networking, or through seat-back browsers. Although there are few restrictions on what Internet resources can be accessed, users will have to subscribe to the company portal. Rates have yet to be set, but a wide range of e-commerce services will be offered to vastly increase the number of ways you can spend money at altitude.

Currently, the system is installed in some private jets, including Boeing chief executive Phil Condit's own Boeing Business Jet. Commercial services will start in the fourth quarter of 2001 for flights over the US, with the service expanding into a true global network during the following four years. The service isn't limited to Boeing aircraft, and can be fitted to Airbus, BAe, Bombardier and other civil passenger planes. All of the major airlines are evaluating Internet access systems: a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic told ZDNet, "We're looking at installing Internet access, as well as live TV and video on demand, some time next year."

Connexion by Boeing uses geostationary satellites, which the aircraft tracks using phased array antennae. These act like steerable dishes, but are low profile and have no moving parts. Using the satellites will induce a half-second delay and for security reasons no passenger can network to another passenger's computer, so hopes of Quake deathmatches at 35,000 feet seem slim. Boeing insists that the system will be completely safe, with a combination of firewalls, segmented network architecture and extensive testing preventing users intentionally or accidentally interfering with avionics in flight.

However, within the airline community itself the issue of radiation from laptops and other devices interfering with navigation and other systems is still hotly debated, and the advent of inflight networks will at the very least add to the complexity of the problem.

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