The Internet In-Flight

"The issue really is that the carrier [AirCell] really needs to build ground facilities," Mann told ABCNEWS.com. "Current cell phone towers don't look up. They're not looking for planes. [AirCell] is going to have to have a lot of additional antennas to cover all the dead spots."

AirCell is doing just that, said Phillips, but the company may not be building as many cell towers as one might think.

"When you think about these towers being on the ground and pointing up toward the sky, it [the signal's range] is shaped like a cone," explained Phillips who said that the top of the cone has a diameter of around 250 miles. "So it's possible to cover the whole nation with only 100 cell towers."

As Phillips explained, when full support is completed sometime at the end of next year, in a flight from New York City to Los Angeles, the plane would pick up a little more than 12 different cell tower signals to make the 3,000-plus-mile flight without ever losing the signal.

AirCell is not just constructing all these towers for its test with American Airlines, however. According to Phillips, the company is "talking to every major airline" and is in "advanced talks" with several of them.

'Just a Test'

Such an expansive, complex system has led American Airlines to take a very serious, if extremely cautious, step in the direction of ground-to-plane Internet access.

"It's not a major investment. It's just a fraction of our total fleet," said American Airlines spokesman Charley Wilson. "If this works out, if the technology works well, if the customer usage works out well, if they like the price point, if the test succeeds, then we'd consider deploying this technology to other parts of our fleet."

With so many ifs, Mann believes the airline is going at the correct pace: "By focusing on a particular route and a particular group of aircraft, it's a smart approach."

"If something better comes along, we could look at a different solution," said Wilson.

The system also has a definite "not" -- as in, not capable of coverage for over water flights. That means no Internet access for transatlantic jaunts to Europe or Asia -- both major markets for business travelers who would be among the most likely to use Internet in-flight.

To satisfy that demand other international airlines, including Lufthansa, which has maintained its satellite-ready equipment, are simply looking for other satellite carrier providers.

According to Lufthansa's Urbaniak, the company is in "final stages of negotiations" with a major carrier and hopes to get its service back online by the end of next year.

In the Cabin, in the Future

Mann said he thinks built-in Internet connectivity will be standard on most planes in the future.

"Within five years you'll see the new technology aircrafts with these capabilities hardwired in there," he said. "It's a lot easier to do in the factory."

And while he sees that as a positive effect of the technology, one thing he's not looking forward to is the in-flight telephony that will almost assuredly come with the Internet access.

"There's a fair amount of concern from fellow passengers. Nobody wants to spend the whole flight listening to someone yak into an electronic box," he said. "It's like people driving and talking at the same time too.

"Well, at least they're not flying the plane."

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