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Surfing at 30,000ft - how it works

Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare to boot up
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor

Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare to boot up

Still, the flying internet does currently have some kinks. This story was written on Connexion's plane to demonstrate in-flight internet connections with a notebook containing a 1.6GHz Banias chip from Intel. The plane circled the San Francisco airport for close to 30 minutes before a connection with the satellite could be established. Once connected, downloads occurred at sub-56K speeds. My personal Hotmail account refused to open. (To be fair, others on the flight had far better luck and could download pages faster.) "The good news is that we got a connection," said Andrew Weisheit, vice president of direct sales for Connexion. "Otherwise we'd be in a cone." Service is established through a combination of wired, wireless and satellite technologies. Depending on the plane, passengers can plug into a standard phone jack or connect via 802.11b. Either way, the connections feed directly to an in-plane bank of servers, which authenticate users and ensure payment has been made. Many planes also will come with electrical plugs so laptops won't have to run on batteries. For now, connecting through a jack likely will be more common. National air traffic authorities have to approve specific Wi-Fi products for in-flight use. Wireless users on Lufthansa's flights, for instance, have to use loaners from the airlines. Regulatory approval, however, will likely accelerate, Weisheit said. The in-flight servers then connect to satellites orbiting the equator. Connexion specially designed the antenna the airplanes use to connect, Weisheit said, and the company is working on a more high-powered version with Mitsubishi. "It is mechanically like the same technology that links terrestrial ATM machines," he said. "The difference for us is that our ATM machines are moving at 600 miles an hour." Connections to the satellite on the current system fade out north of Iceland, he said. The coming antennas will allow planes to maintain reception for planes on polar routes above Greenland. Weisheit and others also stated that the system is robust enough to not require in-flight IT managers. The company is part of Boeing's overall effort, kicked off in 1996, to broaden its revenue base, according to company executives. Boeing formed Connexion in November 2000. Originally, it was targeted at providing service in the US. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines were investors. The decline in air traffic after 11 September 2001, however, forced these companies to drop their equity positions in Connexion, Weisheit said.
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