April 17, 2001, 10:21 AM — LATER THIS YEAR, airline companies might be tempted to introduce some new slogans: Surf the friendly skies. You've got air mail. Taking the Internet to new heights.
Plane manufacturers and airlines are scrambling to offer Net access to passengers. For example, Boeing, based in Irvine, Calif., is developing a system to let you plug your laptop into a traditional RJ-45 Ethernet port and take off at speeds of 1.5Mbps transmitting data and 5Mbps receiving data. Besides e-mail and Web access -- it'll also offer live television feeds and secure connections to your intranet.
The technology behind Connexion, as Boeing's service will be called, is two aerodynamic flat antennae that sit on top of an airplane -- Boeing craft as well as others. It beams data to and from a satellite, and is designed to automatically respond to directional changes and maintain its connection.
You'll probably start to see Boeing's service on commercial domestic routes by late 2001. It's already been tested on business and government jets, and will eventually be available on international flights. Other companies, including In-flight Network, based in New York City, and Inflightonline, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are also planning to offer similar services.
"The system is being built to meet any safety concerns," says Ric Vandermeulen, head of marketing and director of strategic alliances for Connexion. "We will be operating in a band way above cockpit communications, at 14 gigahertz." So will that mean an end to the familiar bans on wireless electronics in flight? (See "Up in the Air," CIO, Dec. 1, 2000.) No, it appears the real fear there is that those devices can easily become projectiles under some conditions. Now that'd be something to send an in-flight e-mail home about.