Wi-Fi in the Sky: the Boeing Connexion

By Rob Enderle  |  Posted 2004-03-26

Wi-Fi in the Sky: the Boeing Connexion

As I sit here in an American Eagle commuter jet, flying from San Jose to Los Angeles and trying to write this column, one thing occurs to me: This Ferrari-branded notebook sure looks better when it isnt solidly stuck in my stomach. The second thing that occurs to me is, Ill probably never regain the use of my hands. But since I am trying to bisect my midsection and cripple myself anyway, another thing that occurred to me was, "Wouldnt it be wonderful if I could actually get to a network?"

Actually, that isnt true. The first thing that occurred to me was that American Eagle flights have seats designed by sadists with an aversion to foam rubber.

But Ive gotten kind of fond of being able to communicate from airports using Wi-Fi (generally through Wayport or T-Mobile). Being able to work on a plane would mean I wouldnt have to catch up with tons of e-mail after I landed.

Boeing is attempting to come to my rescue with a service called Connexion. This was actually supposed to be deployed widely by now, but the 911 disaster resulted in a change of plans.

Since we have been conditioned to think that turning on a cell phone or a RIM BlackBerry in flight could suddenly result in our having substantially more leg room, I would typically be a bit leery of this idea of putting wireless networking into airplanes. But Ive left my cell phone on by accident several times, and Im still here. Its not the wisest test, but I have to believe Im not the only one who has done this. Ive also seen people use their BlackBerries in the air. Not that I would ever do that, but the plane has survived that as well.

Im becoming convinced that this whole "turn the electronics off" thing is a power trip the flight crew is on. On a flight to Italy a while back, they wouldnt let me use a CD player, but my laptop was OK, as long as I removed the CD drive. I think it was just an Italian requirement that you be as bored and uncomfortable as possible—a feature I feel they should promote more widely so we all learn to fly another airline.

But ever since they took the telephones out of the planes, Ive been looking for creative ways to spend money on flights. And Wi-Fi may be that way.

Part of the problem with air travel is that the trips are not only very cramped, they also are incredibly boring. The only excitement is when they bring you the food and you get to discover if its edible.

Next page: JetBlue uses the boob tube to good zombification effect.

JetBlues use of the

boob tube"> JetBlue addressed this very well by observing small children. They discovered that children zone out in front of a TV set and figured adults likely would do the same. JetBlues TV service has been very popular, particularly now that it delivers more than just Teletubbies. I tried it the other day. The only problem is, I still dont know how the darned 2-hour "Columbo" episode I was watching—which started 1 hour before we landed—ended. There should be a warning that says something like, "This is a 2-hour episode. If you are on JetBlue and have an hour before landing, please watch two 30-minute Lucy episodes instead.")

But I did zone out in front of the set, and the trip went by very quickly. Though I do seem to be saying, "Lucy, you got some explaining to do" rather often now. I also didnt get any work done, but given the cramped quarters and my own fatigue, that probably wasnt going to happen anyway.

What is interesting is that JetBlues TV solution may be taking the opportunity from Wi-Fi in the air. While it clearly isnt as productive, it does keep you entertained and helps make the flight go by. It is relatively easy to support (asking the flight crew for help getting online is, Im sure, something they are all looking forward to), and it doesnt make you feel more cramped. Ive convinced this is part of the presidents fitness plan. There is nothing like getting into a coach seat and trying to work on a laptop to make you feel overweight, with the possible exception of having someone touch your stomach and ask when the baby is due before realizing you are a guy.

Next page: Wi-Fi may save the day. At least, it will line some airlines pockets.


$rich$ promise of Wi-Fi"> Boeings Connexion service can address the entertainment aspects by providing several TV channels and even a video on-demand service as part of the package, and they eventually intend to do just that. But, much as the fax machine significantly delayed the deployment of e-mail, in-flight TV may delay the deployment of Boeings Wi-Fi technology.

While Boeing is providing pricing using a flat-rate model—it generally will cost between $10 for 30 minutes to $30 per international segment of 8 to 10 hours—with unlimited data, there are some other services that have launched in Asia that charge by the megabyte. One traveler figured he could probably buy a round-trip ticket and put his laptop on the plane by itself back to the office for a fraction of what it would take to e-mail back his PowerPoint slides. So if you do see Wi-Fi on a plane in Asia, make sure you understand the pricing or have borrowed someone elses credit card before using it.

To get the more reasonable Boeing service, you will have to fly overseas. You wont see this on a U.S. carrier anytime soon. Initially, starting this spring, it will be on some Lufthansa, SAS, JAL, Singapore Airlines, ANA and China Airlines flights. It wont be on all of these carriers at once, and it wont be on all of the planes, which will probably make getting a network connection more of a hit-or-miss thing than it otherwise would be for a few years.

Of course, when this finally arrives we will also be able to make phone calls using voice over IP. It is kind of strange to realize that the path to reasonably priced phone calls from a plane may be through a wireless data network.

Until American and United and the other "traditional" U.S. carriers step up to the plate, youll likely find me on JetBlue as an ex-Platinum-level American Airlines passenger, watching old episodes of "Columbo" and wishing for Wi-Fi.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.

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