Around the world in ... In-flight connectivity

There are fewer and fewer places in the modern world where Internet access and mobile signals can't be found. The inside of an in-flight aircraft has remained one of the connectivity-free bastions -- but that's all about to change.

There are fewer and fewer places in the modern world where Internet access and mobile signals can't be found. The inside of an in-flight aircraft has remained one of the connectivity-free bastions -- but that's all about to change.

Qantas's moves to enable in-flight connectivity are, for the most part, still yet to mature. However, Australia's national carrier has not been slow to adopt technology in its fleet.

From next year, Qantas will take delivery of a fleet of planes which will offer on-board Wi-Fi, as well as mobile SMS and voice connectivity.

Qantas recently won approval from the ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority) to conduct a trial of SMS on one commercial aircraft for up to 12 months.

The airline is currently is still in the middle of the trial and expects to be making an announcement on any rollout of the technology before the end of this year.

Both Jetstar and Virgin Blue told ZDNet Australia that they do not currently have either mobile or Internet access in-flight and don't have any plans to launch such connectivity on their roadmaps, however, both are open to the technology at some point in the future.

North America
Connexion by Boeing -- an in-flight broadband provider which had signed up a number of big name carriers as customers, including airlines from Asia, Europe and North America -- closed its doors last year, saying: "The market for this service has not materialised as had been expected."

Broadband connectivity on users' planes was phased out at the end of last year.

Following the demise of Connexion by Boeing, some American carriers' plans for sky-high connectivity took a battering -- the defunct service once had American Airlines, United and Delta on its roster.

American Airlines intends to revive its plans for Internet access, though, announcing earlier this year that it plans to trial in-flight broadband with AirCell. A test service is scheduled to go live on its Boeing 767-200 aircraft that fly transcontinental routes.

If all goes well with the experiment, American said it may well roll the service out across its domestic fleet.

Virgin America has also done a deal with American's broadband partner AirCell, with a launch date scheduled for some time in 2008. As well as allowing the usual laptop/smartphone Internet access, Virgin will offer users Webmail and IM from the usual suspects through its seat-back entertainment system.

While the launch date remains cloudy, Virgin America has been unequivocal in saying it will eventually deploy the service throughout its entire fleet.

Mobile phone connectivity on US flights still remains a no-no, although American Airlines in conjunction with mobile chipmaker Qualcomm demonstrated the safe use of mobiles on a plane as early as 2004.

However, airlines are still thinking of ways to keep tech-savvy travellers plugged in -- a number of carriers, including Continental and Delta, last year signed up to provide iPod integration with their planes, allowing passengers to charge their iPods from their seats and feed video from the MP3 players to their seat-back video screens.

Europe's sky-high connectivity also took a major blow with the demise of Connexion by Boeing, which had signed up Germany's national carrier Lufthansa and Scandinavian airline SAS.

Lufthansa, meanwhile, is still thought to be keen on finding a replacement broadband provider, saying at the time of the Connexion closure it hoped to continue offering its customers a service they had come to expect.

If a report in the Wall Street Journal is correct, Lufthansa has found that partner. The paper said that Lufthansa is working with T-Mobile and others with a view to reviving its broadband offering.

However, in the wake of Connexion's closure, the in-flight connectivity market in Europe seems to have shifted from supplying broadband to fixing up travellers with mobile access.

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Irish budget airline Ryanair has said it intends to give passengers mobile voice and text communications in 50 planes by the end of this year. The service will use Inmarsat's satellite connectivity and infrastructure from OnAir, a joint venture between aircraft manufacturer Airbus and airline communications and IT company SITA.

Air France has also signed up to test mobile access, taking delivery of a plane equipped with OnAir infrastructure. The French carrier has begun a six-month trial of the system which is expected to last into next year, with the results used to determine whether the airline will deploy the system on further aircraft.

A handful of Asian carriers have also signed with OnAir, including Shenzen Air, which hopes to have three planes equipped with the mobile system in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; AirAsia, which plans a full-fleet rollout in 2009 and Kingfisher Airlines, which will provide mobile and Internet access via OnAir.


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