Broadband joins the Mile-High Club

If Boeing's trial with Lufthansa, which takes off on Wednesday, is a success then commercial service is only 12 months away - but it's not likely to be cheap

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing is just a year away from launching a full commercial broadband service for passengers on its aeroplanes.

The company said on Tuesday that it has teamed up with German airline Lufthansa to bring high-speed Internet access to passengers who fly between Frankfurt and Washington Dulles International Airport.

The trial starts on Wednesday and will run for three months. If it is a success then Boeing is hopeful of launching the service commercially in partnership with several other airlines by early 2004.

"We're pretty excited about the trial. It's a chance to see how consumers use the service, and to find out what they think about it," Boeing senior vice president Scott Carson told ZDNet UK News.

"We're planning a full commercial launch in 12 months' time, and our business model is to have in excess of 4,000 planes equipped with the service within ten years," Carson added.

Boeing's service means that people will be able to check their email, surf the Web, and possibly even do videoconferencing while in the air -- which is likely to particularly appeal to business travellers.

The broadband connection is provided by a geostationary satellite. This gives a 20Mbps downlink from the Internet to the plane, and a 1Mbps uplink. Within the plane, the bandwidth is distributed either wirelessly, or via a wired LAN.

This asymmetric pipe reflects the fact that users usually consume more bandwidth when downloading information such as Web pages, rather than when sending data. One application where this isn't the case, though, is video-conferencing, but Carson said that two-way video did work -- as long as several passengers didn't attempt it at the same time. "A connection of 156Kbps for each user should be highly achievable. We've been trialling the service on a test plane, and with 30 people aggressively surfing the Web the connection speed never fell below 156Kbps," Carson claimed.

It's not yet completely clear how much a passenger might expect to pay to get broadband in the air, but Carson said that it in discussions with one airline there had been talk of charging $35 (around £22) for access during a whole flight.

Several other companies are also taking an interest in providing aeroplanes with broadband connections, including satellite operator Inmarsat which said back in April 2002 that its Swift64 service would give aeroplane passengers connection speeds of up to 64Kbps.

See the Broadband News Section for the latest on cable modems, ADSL, satellite and other high-speed access technologies, including a comprehensive guide to the best deals out there.

For a weekly round-up of the latest broadband-related news, sign up for The Broadband Informer newsletter.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.