Surfing The Friendly Skies

May 27, 2003 (01:05 PM EDT)

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Lufthansa will offer its passengers a broadband Internet connection service starting early next year. The service, called Connexion, is supplied by the Boeing Co. and will put in-flight passengers in touch with their E-mail, work applications, and streaming entertainment, Boeing officials say.

British Airways is expected to follow on Lufthansa's heels, and both Scandinavian Airlines and Japan Airlines are reviewing the service, according to Boeing officials.

"We'll have a full-scale launch in the first quarter of 2004," says Darrin Luther, senior manager of satellite communication systems for Connexion. The service is likely to be priced between $25 and $35 a flight segment, he says.

If you're wondering why such a service isn't already part of flying the friendly skies, it's because it requires the coordination of several dissimilar technologies. One of the key pieces of the service is 275,000 lines of code produced by Luther's development team for governing the Connexion service's modem on an airliner. The modem dials up multiple connections for passengers by tying their Ethernet local area network to the satellite transmission antennas on the aircraft. "It took 18 months to get to that point," Luther says.

The modem is tied to two phased-array antennas pointed at a geostationary satellite, one that orbits the Earth in such a way that it appears to be in a fixed position above a given spot. The antennas can be adjusted constantly to track the position of a satellite. The satellite provides the data communications link between the plane and a data center on the ground, which supplies access to the Internet. By keeping the antennas pointed toward the satellite, data communications can remain constant, even if the aircraft is on a cross-country, trans-Atlantic, or trans-Pacific flight.

The tracking has to be done "within very tight requirements, so that transmissions from the airliner don't interfere with other satellites," Luther says.

Passengers with laptops or other devices will be linked to an onboard server through an Ethernet plug-in at their seats. The service is coordinated by Iona Technologies' Orbix integration broker, a software traffic manager that can deal with distinct subsystems, even though they're written in different computer languages. Boeing considered several integration brokers but selected Orbix after tests, because of its "speed, performance, and throughput," Luther says.

Passengers will be able to sign up for the service at an airline portal. Boeing will operate two data centers, one in Colorado and one in Switzerland, to supply access to the Internet for Connexion users.