Wi-Fi In the Sky

Wi-Fi on airplanes just got a lot more entertaining. Boeing this week launched a streaming television delivered straight to your laptop as part of its Connexion by Boeing high-speed Internet service. The video service will debut on Singapore Airlines, and lets passengers watch CNBC, BBC, Eurosport News, and either MSNBC (if you're flying in the United States) or Euronews (if you're abroad).

I tested Boeing's Wi-Fi service, including its new streaming video features, during a special flight out of Seattle on a Boeing 737-400. It already is available on about 70 planes operated by ANA, China Airlines, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS, and Singapore Airlines, though not on domestic U.S. flights, a fact that many experts attribute to finances.

"You haven't seen much in major capital investments since 9/11," says Jack Evans, spokesperson for the Air Transport Association. "Some airlines are still dealing with the bare essentials of survival."

Once the streaming video service is set up, you can expect DSL-like speeds, says Tim Vinopal, director of service delivery engineering. Maximum throughput to the plane is 20 megabits per second, which Vinopal says translates to a passenger average of 150 to 200 kilobits per second. On our test flight, speeds felt pokier than DSL but not painful. Television streaming, which plays off of the Connexion by Boeing home page, was definitely jumpy--my MSNBC and BBC video feeds were a bit stop and go--but audio was fluid and clear. E-mail and instant messaging worked fine, and you could even log in to corporate networks via VPN.

Although some other people onboard had no problem logging on to the service, the wireless card in my laptop refused to redirect to the Connexion IP address. Rebooting my wireless didn't work--it took one of Boeing's tech experts and some command-line magic to address the issue. Another passenger had difficulties connecting due to interference with his VPN client.

That's a main problem with in-air broadband: Random glitches can occur, and an SAS flight isn't going to have experts who can help you troubleshoot. Boeing spokespeople say that flight attendants may be able to reach tech support through VoIP phones or text chat on their own Internet-connected machines--but such systems aren't standard.

Once set up, you can expect DSL-like speeds, says Tim Vinopal, director of service delivery engineering. Maximum throughput to the plane is 20 megabits per second, which Vinopal says translates to a passenger average of 150 to 200 kilobits per second. On our test flight, speeds felt pokier than DSL but not painful. E-mail and instant messaging worked fine, and you could even log in to corporate networks via VPN.

While Boeing's Connexion is the most complete service to date, other companies are also in the game. Switzerland-based OnAir--a joint venture including Boeing rival Airbus--is using satellite to offer a more-limited selection of services, including in-seat Short Message Service (SMS) and proxy access to Web-based e-mail and instant messaging. OnAir plans to add a live IP service by 2007 that will give passengers full Web browsing and VPN capabilities.

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