SAS, Telia to test in-flight wireless Internet access

Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) announced Wednesday that it will start testing wireless Internet access on board aircraft by the end of this year. But while some technical issues remain to be resolved, trickiest of all will be educating users.

The Stockholm-based airline consortium is working with Swedish telecommunications operator Telia AB and Seattle-based remote access specialist Tenzing Communications Inc. to develop an in-flight Internet access service based on IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN (local area network) technology, SAS and Tenzing said in separate statements Wednesday.

Telia already offers a more earthbound subscription-based wireless Internet service in airports and hotels across Sweden under the Home Run brand. The service enables subscribers to connect to the Internet from hotel rooms and airport lounges from laptop computers using an IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN PC Card, for a monthly fee of 1,500 kronor (US$157). The company is negotiating with airport authorities in other Nordic countries, and with foreign partners at airports in other nations, to extend the service to travellers worldwide, according to a company spokesman.

The next logical step is to extend the service into the aircraft, so that travellers have access to their e-mail from one end of their journey to the other, said SAS spokesman Ulf Thorne.

SAS will install a trial system to do just that on one of its 13 Boeing 767s in the last quarter of this year but, “we can’t give an exact date because we are still doing some testing on the ground” Thorne said.

The in-cabin system will use a standard IEEE 802.11b wireless networking base station, repackaged to “aircraft standards”, but passengers will be able to log on using off-the-shelf PC cards, according to Conny Doverlov, who is responsible for cabin electronics matters at SAS’s fleet and aircraft development group in Stockholm.

SAS passengers will be able to pick up Internet e-mail from their usual POP3 mailbox, and will also be able to access a limited range of travel-related Web sites, cached on an on-board server and regularly updated over a satellite data link using Inmarsat Holdings Ltd.’s Aero-H service.

The caching is necessary because, although the in-flight LAN will carry data at rates up to 11M bps (bits per second), the WAN (wide area network) connection to the Internet will for now have a capacity of just 2.4K bps.

“I don’t think this will be enough to provide a good service, but it’s my understanding that Inmarsat will provide up to 64K bps by the end of the year,” said Doverlov.

The caching system, developed by Tenzing, took to the air for the first time last week on six Boeing 767s operated by Air Canada, according to Angela Mah, a spokeswoman for the airline. Air Canada is using Tenzing’s caching servers to offer a wired in-flight Web and e-mail service to executive-class passengers on long-haul flights across Canada.

Tenzing’s system caches not only Web content, but also e-mail messages, queueing them for sending and reception. SAS said it is working on providing secure access to corporate e-mail accounts, which typically reside behind a firewall on a company network.

Although some technical challenges remain, the hardest part for SAS may be explaining to passengers that while it’s safe to surf, turning on cell phones is still a no-no.

Airline regulations are likely to continue to prohibit the use of cell phones in flight because of the risk that they will interfere with vital navigation equipment, but according to Doverlov, wireless LANs are safe because, “the output power of 802.11b is much lower (than that of a cell phone). We would not try to do anything that might be unsafe.”

While the new Airbus A330s and A340s with which SAS will be replacing its Boeing 767s over the next few years contain far more electronics than older aircraft, they are probably less vulnerable because “the rules for construction have been tightened in newer aircraft,” Doverlov said. “That’s one of the things that makes me more comfortable that we will succeed.”

(Joris Evers in Amsterdam contributed to this report.)

SAS, in Stockholm, can be reached at +46-8-797-00-00 or Tenzing, in Seattle, can be reached at +1-206-607-2700 Telia, in Stockholm, can be reached at +46-8-713-10-00 or Inmarsat, in London, can be reached at +44-20-7728-1000 or