IPTV takes off on planes with GSM to follow

Mobility Summit: Singapore Airlines launched the first in-flight IPTV service on Saturday, and aeroplane makers say voice GSM will be available in-flight next year

The world's first IPTV service was launched on Singapore Airlines flights on Saturday, bringing four television channels passengers over the planes' wireless IP network.

Connexion by Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer's division charged with bringing IP services to airlines, said Singapore Airlines has an exclusive deal to the service for now, but other carriers "are lining up" to adopt the service once the exclusivity period expires.

Delivering the keynote address at the Mobility Summit in London's Victoria Plaza Hotel on Monday, Connexion by Boeing's director of wireless channel Adla Hendry estimated that now half of all Wi-Fi-enabled devices taken onto flights that offer a Wi-Fi network are logging on.

Connexion by Boeing now provides Wi-Fi on over 60 aircraft owned by a number of carriers including SAS, JML, Singapore, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines.

Given the popularity of on-board connectivity, more services are due to follow, said Hendry. "We are now enabling GSM voice services on-board, by installing pico cells [small mobile base stations] on some planes," she said. "We are turning what is usually downtime into productive time," she added.

Siemens is already developing a light-weight GSM pico cell and has been contracted to provide this to OnAir, a joint venture launched in February between Airbus and transport application developer SITA. OnAir said the system will let passengers use their mobile phones during flights without disrupting aircraft systems, and will be ready for fitting on any Airbus A320 aircraft flying on routes in Western Europe by the second half of 2006.

At Boeing, Wi-Fi was not the easiest project to get off the ground. "Boeing had to prove that the Wi-Fi and the satellite link would not interfere with systems on the planes," said Hendry. "We had to get approval from airline authorities and from radio communications authorities, because the planes enter many different airspaces — we had to get authority from 100 countries."

Hendry noted that leisure travellers are now overtaking business travellers as users of IP services on flights, hence the introduction of IPTV — though passengers still need their own laptop to be able to use this service. Some airlines, said Hendry, are looking at delivering IPTV to seat-back screens, and even at the possibility of flip-down keyboards built into seat-backs.

But there are still concerns over security — and from unexpected places. "We have two corporate customers that refuse to use Wi-Fi for security reasons," said Hendry. "One of them makes Wi-Fi equipment. Now that should make us nervous if their own employees are not allowed to use it." Hendry declined to name the manufacturer.

Security concerns appear to be arising in other quarters too. This week Wired  reported that US federal law enforcement officials, fearful that terrorists will exploit emerging in-flight broadband services to remotely activate bombs or coordinate hijackings, are asking regulators for the power to begin eavesdropping on any passenger's Internet use within 10 minutes of obtaining court authorisation.

The Mobility Summit is organised by the European Technology Forum, which is owned by ZDNet UK's parent company CNET Networks UK.