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June 16, 2005

In-Flight Broadband Flies Globally, But Stalls In U.S.

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The U.S.-based Boeing Company announced Thursday that it has signed up another foreign airline for its in-flight broadband service. The head of the service, attending the Paris Air Show, said Connexion by Boeing expects to start selling cellular phone services to airline passengers next year.

Connexion by Boeing's president Laurette Koellner told the Reuters news service that the cell phone service is on track for introduction of the service next year. A major problem, however, looms with U.S. airlines and with many passengers who oppose the use of cell phones on commercial flights.

Many foreign airlines have embraced in-flight broadband, and Koellner announced that Austrian Airlines has agreed to install the Connexion broadband Internet service on seven of its Boeing planes early next year.

The issue is complicated by the surging growth of VoIP--phoning over the Internet; broadband on flights could pave the way for use of VoIP on planes, too. The Boeing service could ultimately bring voice telephone service into airline passenger cabins through its broadband technology.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration are both opposed to cell phone service in the skies. The FCC is reviewing the issue and early public comments to the FCC indicate that the public and different groups including aircraft crews are vigorously opposed to cell phone use on planes. The FAA has banned cell phone use because it suspects the technology could interfere with avionics and onboard electronic gear.

The story is different in other countries. "The Connexion by Boeing service is available today on flights offered by Lufthansa, SAS, Japan Airlines, ANA and Singapore Airlines," Boeing noted in a statement Thursday. "In addition, China Airlines, Korean Air, El Al, Asiana, and Etihad will begin offering the high-speed service on their long-range aircraft in the very near future."

The Boeing broadband service has grown rapidly and the company has said it has agreements with more than 500 corporations worldwide; Connexion by Boeing also serves the business aviation and maritime markets. On Wednesday, Boeing announced that it had signed a deal with Teekay Shipping Corporation to supply its service via satellite to 50 Teekay ships at sea.

Koellner told Reuters that aircraft installations of Connexion should nearly double by the end of the year, growing from 64 now to 120 by the end of the year. She added that the Connexion service should break even in 2008.

In addition to hurdles represented by the FCC and the FAA, U.S. law enforcement agencies are reviewing cell phone use on aircraft from the point of terrorist implications. While the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department say they generally support increased communications availability for passengers, they have observed that cell phone use could assist terrorists to carry out attacks. Others have noted that passengers and aircraft crew members used their cell phones when their planes were hijacked by terrorists in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Other potential stumbling blocks to the introduction of cell phone service in passenger aircraft are represented by the lack of support from individual U.S. airlines. United Airlines, for instance, has said it has no plans to offer cell phone service, noting that 80 percent of its passengers say they oppose it.

As it is, passengers can telephone from many commercial flights. Verizon's AirFone service has been offered for many years in passenger cabins. Verizon Wireless has partnered with Cingular Wireless in comments to the FCC, according to USA Today, and said they might consider supporting a lifting of the cell phone ban under certain circumstances.

David Haskin, editor of Mobile Pipeline, contributed to this story.

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