Boeing, Airbus in Net Access Deals

The battle to offer internet access in the sky is heating up, and the result may be a confusing jumble of standards for airline passengers.

The battle to offer internet access in the sky is heating up, and the result may be a confusing jumble of standards for airline passengers.

Last week, Boeing announced it is forming a joint venture company with partners American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Boeing will manage and be majority owner of the new company, which will provide Connexion by Boeing onboard Internet access to commercial airplanes using a live satellite link in the air.

Airbus, Boeings chief competitor in airplane manufacturing, almost immediately announced a deal of its own. Airbus took a 30 percent stake in Tenzing Communications, which already offers e-mail and Internet access services on several international airlines, caching information for use on the flight.

Because many airlines own planes from both manufacturers, Connexion by Boeing and Tenzing said they will gladly install their offerings on aircraft built by another manufacturer. "Wed be delighted to install this on any aircraft. I suspect well see this on Airbus planes soon," said Scott Carson, president of Connexion by Boeing.

Because American, Delta and United have a stake in the success of Connexion by Boeing, they likely will install the offering across all of their airplanes, regardless of manufacturer. But its not clear what airlines that arent part of the joint venture will do.

Agreeing to make the company a joint venture with airline partners might have been the only choice for Boeing, but it could alienate other airlines. "The Boeing people got a pretty strong reaction from the airlines that We own the passengers and you dont own them. So this is a way to compromise," said Roger Rusch, president of TelAstra, a consultancy for space-based systems companies.

But another airline might not want to buy products and services from a company that is partly owned by competitors. "Theyll come up with their own approach," Rusch said.

Whatever choice airlines make, there will likely be different standards for how passengers hook into the Internet while on board. The service providers could agree to choose a common standard such as a Universal Serial Bus port, but that might require users to load software onto their laptops, which could discourage use, Rusch said.

Its also not yet clear how much demand there is for onboard Internet access and how much passengers are willing to spend.

The Boeing service, which wont be installed until at least the middle of next year, should cost about $20 per hour at first. Tenzings offering, already available on three airlines but much slower than Boeings promised speed, costs $4.95 per flight and 50 cents per e-mail page read and sent.