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Air travel can be mind-numbing. And that may explain why passengers have not made a big deal about being “off line” during flights. But technology and regulatory changes are making it likely that internet and even cellphones will become ubiquitous during flights.

Limited on-board communications exist. Those neglected seat-back phones, such as Verizon’s Airfone, have been in planes for years. Webmail and short messaging are also available on many aircraft, especially in the US. But high tariffs, low bandwidth and an awkward form factor have discouraged uptake.

The first big innovation was Connexion by Boeing, an on-board Wi-Fi service with high-speed wireless internet access. Launched 14 months ago, the Boeing subsidiary uses a five megabit satellite link to offer stable, abundant bandwidth at low prices. A competing service is under development by OnAir, a consortium that includes Airbus. OnAir will also enable travellers to use their own GSM phones for voice calls.

But current usage rates appear low. “I’ve heard that Lufthansa is less than pleased with uptake of Connexion,” says Henry Harteveldt at Forrester Research. Connexion by Boeing is available on 100 flights per day on six airlines, although the number of flights served should double by the year-end.

Mr Harteveldt believes broadband internet will be a must-have for all airlines. “It will be as essential to an aircraft as a coffee maker by 2008 or 2009,” he says.

And Connexion does have happy customers, claiming satisfaction rates of 93 per cent. “I was pretty jazzed by the service on a flight to Copenhagen,” says Brad Smith, a marketer for a Washington software company. “I felt like I was in the office and didn’t lose any of my work day.”

“The highest barrier is awareness,” says Laurette Koellner, president of Connexion. One way that the company hopes to drive usage is through partnerships with Wi-Fi roaming aggregators, such as T-Systems and Boingo.

The next frontier in in-flight communications is cellphone use. Banned for safety reasons, regulators seemed satisfied that the service can be made safe. The technology is also ready with solutions available from Ericsson, Siemens and Qualcomm.

The biggest barrier to use is likely to be social. “I can see major cases of air rage as a result of cellphones,” warns Mr Harteveldt. The leading US association of flight attendants is adamantly opposed to them. Forrester advocates on-board call boxes that could be rented to place calls. Demand for voice calls appears limited.

“Only 16 per cent of air travellers are interested in voice. Most want data and messaging,” says Mr Harteveldt.

But OnAir claims customers on short haul flights are more interested in voice calls. “These flights are part of the business work day and the ambiance is different. Voice is more accepted,” says George Cooper, chief executive. But if passenger demand is ambiguous, what is in it for the airlines?

Connexion and OnAir believe the availability of in-flight communications will lead customers to choose one airline over another. “Business travellers are not going to stay in a hotel without internet access. We want to translate these expectations to the aircraft,” says Mr Cooper.

Airlines could also use broadband connectivity to get out of the in-flight entertainment business, says Mr Harteveldt.

By providing a fat data pipe, airlines could “outsource” entertainment to the passenger, eliminating the hefty licensing fees they pay for content as well as binning the servers that weigh up to 1,000 lbs. Lighter planes mean lower fuel consumption or additional passengers – money saved or gained.

One early step is Singapore Airlines’ plan to use Connexion for live television on some flights. Users will be able to watch channels such as BBC World on their Wi-Fi laptops. The TV service will be available to all Connexion-equipped planes later this year.

It remains to be seen whether sales will be sufficient to offset the high investment to equip planes with in-flight communications. Forrester estimates that the total cost of installing Connexion by Boeing is around $500,000 per plane. OnAir claims its solution will cost significantly less. Besides the on-board hardware, Connexion and OnAir must lease satellite capacity and patch together a terrestrial network. “The top entry barrier in this business is building the worldwide network,” says Ms Koellner.

The cost of these systems is why US airlines are looking at a less expensive air-to-ground (ATG) alternative. Rather than using a satellite link ATG provides a direct radio link between the plane and the ground network.

An ATG network offering several megabits of bandwidth would need to be deployed as a stand-alone system, says Paul Guckian at Qualcomm, the telecoms vendor. “To cover the entire US and service all of the 5,000 planes in flight at any one time would require just 100 to 200 base stations.”

Another disruptive technology is voice over IP. If high-quality broadband is available on planes, nothing prevents a passenger from bypassing costly roaming tariffs using a VoIP client such as Skype to make free calls.

“This is not something we actively market but, yes, it works,” says Ms Koellner.

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