Somewhere above Yosemite, at 30,000 feet, I'm browsing the Web at megabit speeds while looking down on the gray granite cliffs of Half Dome and El Capitan. Someday that might be a normal part of an airline flight, but today I am one of a rare few.
I'm on Connexion One, a test plane for Boeing Co.'s new network, which delivers a 20-Mbit/second satellite uplink to specially outfitted aircraft like this one. Each of about 30 seats on this 737-400 has access both to 10/100-Mbit Ethernet and 802.11b.
Unfortunately, today's flight is a relatively short demo lap around Lake Tahoe and back to San Francisco International. A few snafus with the current version of the software have delayed our getting Internet access for half an hour.
The front of the Connexion One cabin is a fairly normal-looking business-class section except for the monitor, keypad and Webcam mounted in the bulkhead to create a videoconferencing station. The back half of the cabin looks like a flying data center, with racks of computers, Cisco routers and other networking gear on raised floors and the few available seats dedicated to management consoles.
The plane is essentially a flying test node and demonstration vehicle for the network, in its current version a collection of about half a dozen satellite transponders, two earth stations and more than a dozen planes linked to the Web. "Once you can get broadband up here, the question becomes, What do you want to do with it?" said Robert Dietterle, chief technology officer of the Connexion division of Boeing.
Boeing is pursuing multiple usage scenarios. Developers are researching how high-speed links can open up new applications for the cockpit and cabin crew. They are also testing new FAA tracking and flight-management software that could someday let pilots make their own routing decisions to avoid congestion or storms.
Some of the racks of gear in the back are dedicated to testing new, confidential military applications. Indeed, the Department of Defense already operates about a dozen planes, some sporting real-time videoconferencing connections at 384 kbits/s, for senior government and military officials linked to the Boeing network.
Lufthansa German Airlines has one 747 in service with the DSL-like links, running a Frankfurt-Washington route. British Airways is set to start a trial next week, and Japan Airlines and SAS will begin trials next year.
"We think we can outfit 150 aircraft in our first full year of operation, which starts in 2004, and reach a peak of outfitting up to 800 aircraft a year sometime after that," said Scott E. Carson, president of the Connexion unit.
Another executive estimates that perhaps a third of the 13,000 Boeing planes in use today could be outfitted for broadband in the next 10 years.
But the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the economic downturn hang over those high hopes. "We were six months away from installing our first systems when 9/11 hit," said Dietterle, one of a handful of Boeing executives who started the program in early 1999. "The whole business model was to start in the United States, learn in our backyard and then grow globally. Now Asia and Europe are ready to come along, but the U.S. is nowhere in sight."
Boeing's Connexion One broadband jet is a flying test node and demo vehicle.
Indeed, United, American and Delta Airlines dropped out of a Connexion program soon after the terrorist attacks, though Carson said he expects one U.S. carrier may sign back on this year.
Outfitting an airplane for the network is no small task. Currently the group uses a phase array antenna with separate transmit and receive units measuring about 58 x 39 x 2.5 inches, rising above the roof of the plane. The units are crammed with as many as 1,500 gallium arsenide microwave ICs that electronically scan for the Ku-band satellite signals.
Boeing is working with Mitsubishi on a next-generation single-aperture antenna that will rise nearly a foot above the roof of the plane. It will be able to maintain signal as far as 75° north latitude, well beyond the 63° latitude of the current antenna.
Inside the plane, a small array of network routers, distribution systems and access points from as many as 30 vendors manage and distribute connectivity around the aircraft. Much of the gear is off-the-shelf equipment, verified for in-flight use.
Wireless-LAN access points are ruggedized versions of commercial gear from Rockwell-Collins and Miltope Corp. (Hope Hull, Ala.). More than 100,000 lines of control code run on a Pentium 4/Linux system inside the plane, but the version 5.1 software created a number of snags on our demo flight. Boeing has a road map to a version 8.0 of the code before the system goes into full commercial production.
On the regulatory front, Boeing is hoping the June session of the World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, will approve the company's secondary use of the Ku band. "That will give us the global spectrum OK," Dietterle said. "We've already received special permission from the FCC and agencies in the U.K., France, Germany and other European countries."
On both wired and wireless links, the Connexion screen comes up automatically in a browser and logging on is straightforward. I found the 802.11b performance very satisfying, but for some reason the on-board support person could not identify, the wired Ethernet link was more sluggish than a typical dial-up connection.
Web access in both cases was automatic. I got into folders behind my corporate firewall but despite repeated attempts could not get into my corporate e-mail server before the plane started its descent.
As 802.11 hot spots are built out, roaming will become an issue. Boeing expects to operate Connexion as a subscription service, offering roaming to WLANs in airport terminals. The company is in talks with startup service provider Boingo, as well as AT&T and T-Mobile.
The trouble is, some airports are developing their own 802.11 networks, others are contracting outsiders to do it and still others are letting lounges and terminals do their own subcontracting. "I spoke at a wireless airport association meeting in Washington in September and told them their single biggest challenge is to settle on an architecture and an integration plan that makes this easy for the user," Dietterle said. "Technically this isn't hard; it's just organizing all the different providers."
Boeing is also finding it needs to provide the equivalent of a help desk at 30,000 feet. Currently college kids working as interns are meeting the needs of Lufthansa's flights. "They have had less to do than we anticipated, and we don't think the network will create an extra workload for the cabin crew," said Carson.
In its first three weeks operating two flights a day, service on the plane that Boeing outfitted for Lufthansa has been down on just three flights because of technical problems, he added.
Boeing will charge airlines a one-time fee for each plane they outfit for the network. After that, Boeing will share with the airlines a small cut of the revenue from subscriptions. Passengers will pay about $25 to $35 for access on an eight-hour international flight, less for shorter flights.
The company projects 20 percent of flyers will sign up. On some Lufthansa flights as many as 30 percent of the people on a 747 or 100 users are paying for access at peak times.
Connexion One's crew flies about four flights a week, working out the kinks to bring broadband to tomorrow's jets.