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News Editor

Broadband service a flight of fancy?

Jan 27, 20033 mins
Network Security

Talk about your digital divides: While access to broadband remains a pipe dream for many at any price, a privileged handful of travelers are now zipping around the ‘Net from the comfort of airline seats some 30,000 feet over the Atlantic.

Two European airlines – Lufthansa and British Airways – recently began passenger trials of a high-speed, satellite-based Internet service called Connexion by Boeing on single Frankfurt-to-Washington and London-to-New York flights, respectively. Laptoptoting reporters on the initial hops filed generally positive reviews – and presumably outrageous expense reports – although there was grumbling about details such as awkwardly located Ethernet jacks and power plugs.

Connexion officials are convinced that the flying public – business travelers, in particular – will embrace this in-flight service with open wallets and that the airlines offering it will gain a competitive advantage in their cutthroat marketplace.

Neither proposition seems as certain to Buzz as, oh, say the likelihood of getting a crappy meal in coach. But you’ve still got to appreciate the gee-whiz appeal of having a broadband connection while in a holding pattern over Dulles in a jetliner that isn’t carrying the presidential seal. Connexion receives data at about 3M bit/sec and spits it earthward at 128K bit/sec, according to Connexion. The company promises an upgrade next year that will bump those speeds to 20M and 1M bit/sec.

So what about the U.S. airlines? Aren’t they interested?

“Well, they were prior to Sept. 11,” says Terrance Scott, a spokesman for Connexion. “The [U.S.] airlines are focused on financial stability and staying in business right now.”

However, Connexion is continuing talks with American, Delta and United that Scott believes eventually will bear fruit.

“We’re very optimistic,” he says. “With the American airlines it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. We firmly believe that there is real strong passenger interest.”

Of course, interest is the easy part. Who wouldn’t be interested in a fast track to the Internet as a means to make business travel days more productive or merely to deaden the misery that has become commercial air travel?

However, getting passengers to part with cash that isn’t coming out of a corporate expense account might prove problematic, and, given the economy, even those expense accounts might not be as ripe as Connexion envisions. The airlines still are trying to determine what price is most likely to be palatable, Scott says, but the one being bandied about so far – $30 a flight – sounds steep.

However, Connexion already seems to have buried another possible bone of contention: The fact that there is lots of stuff on the Internet that might not be suitable for showing in the tight confines of a commercial airliner. Who’s going to decide what flies and what doesn’t?

“That’s a very good subject, and it was a real point of discussion with the airlines that we’re working with because, you know, what’s offensive to one may not be offensive to others,” Scott says. “Nudity is not an issue in many parts of Europe, but in other parts of the world it can be deemed offensive. . . . We provide standard commercial-type filtering applications that an airline can have tailored to meet their specific requirements.”

Have the airlines indicated an interest in actually deploying such filtering?

“Yes,” Scott says. “They’re very concerned with presenting a positive passenger experience . . . . You don’t want your kid seeing stuff like that.”

Or one of your road warriors, for that matter.

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