Faster Web Surfing Hits the Skies

On five of its long-haul Boeing 767 aircraft, Air Canada in December started providing the same kind of e-mail and Web surfing performance that passengers would experience through a standard dial-up connection on the ground. It’s the first such service available to commercial airline passengers anywhere in the world, the carrier says.

Analysts agree Air Canada is the first carrier to give passengers onboard Internet connections that match ground dial-up speeds of 56Kbps, but they emphasize all data sent to and from the airplane is still limited by low-speed air-to-ground links that operate at 9.6Kbps on domestic flights and 2.4Kbps on international flights.

Dylan Brooks, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. in New York, says Air Canada’s test of its “Internet in the Air” service marks the “first deployment” of such an airborne Internet system, but he stresses that due to the low-speed downlinks, “it provides limited [Web] content.”

The airline plans to test the performance of the system, provided by Tenzing Communications Inc. in Seattle, for six months, according to Joanne Ward, Air Canada’s director of design and product management.

Though Air Canada won’t charge for the service, Ward says the airline wants to use the test to evaluate service packages and pricing options, which will be key factors in determining whether the service is adopted by passengers in North America. Those travellers rarely use the high-priced seat-back telephones from GTE Airfone Inc., which can cost $4 per minute.

“It has to be less than Airfone charges….But I’m not sure that we can get to the level of $19.95 a month for unlimited access [charged by Internet service providers] for dial-up connections on the ground,” Ward says.

Phil Lemme, vice-president of business technology at Tenzing, says the company has installed Pentium-based servers on the five Air Canada 767s. Each plane’s server collects e-mail sent by passengers jacked into the seat-back phones at a speed of 56Kbps, compresses it and, at five- to 15-minute intervals, “exchanges bundled and compressed” traffic with ground stations.

Lemme says Tenzing uses proprietary compression protocols to boost throughput. Web access is provided to passengers through a 10GB cache of popular Web sites loaded onto the aircraft before takeoff via tape, with periodic updates sent from Tenzing ground servers throughout the flight. Because of the caching system, passengers won’t be able to go to every site on the Web, nor will all links on available sites be active.

Air Canada’s Ward says the ability of the Tenzing system to use the already-installed Airfone infrastructure made installation easy. “We didn’t have to do much to get it up and running, just the installation of the server.”