High-speed broadband joins the jet age

Internet access on aircraft will soon become much faster thanks to improved satellites. It could even be free

Airline passengers pining for faster in-flight internet access anywhere in the world – even over the oceans – are about to get their wish as satellite operators find success where Boeing failed a decade ago. Stronger, more focused signals from spacecraft lofted by providers such as Intelsat will replace cobbled-together connections meant for mobile phones and television broadcasts. Costs will fall, too, eventually making onboard broadband a free amenity to win travellers' loyalty, according to industry executives.

The technology is poised to bring sweeping changes in airborne wi-fi, which is now marked by cumbersome downloads, dead zones and scant public enthusiasm. ViaSat, whose service will debut on the low-cost US airline JetBlue next month, promises more satellite-delivered bandwidth for each passenger than the current market leader Gogo can offer to an entire plane.

"Ten years ago, we used to use dial-up; nobody does that any more," Tim Mahoney, the chief executive of the aerospace unit of Honeywell International, a satellite-hardware supplier, said. "That evolution that we've gone through in our home setting is going to take place on the aircraft." So-called spot beams from the new satellites deliver a more-concentrated signal than those blanketing a region with TV images.

There is enough bandwidth for scores of fliers to share, with moving jets handed seamlessly from one beam to another. It is akin to connecting a Starbucks coffee shop full of wi-fi users, if the store were zipping through the stratosphere. Inmarsat, which will pipe its signal through Honeywell equipment, plans to girdle the globe with three spot-beam satellites launched by 2014.

Intelsat expects its first Epic satellite will be in space in 2015. By then, JetBlue plans to have ViaSat's wi-fi on all its planes, according to the airline's chief executive, Dave Barger.

In-flight internet is available on only about 40 per cent of the US and Canadian airline fleets, said Jim Breen, a Boston-based William Blair & Co analyst. Usage is even less: the satellite provider Global Eagle Entertainment estimates only about 5 per cent of fliers on internet-enabled planes pay to hop online.

"When the plane lands, almost everybody immediately pulls out their phones," said Mark Dankberg, the chief executive of ViaSat. "That gives you a sense of how many people would use it if it were better."

Cory Levy, the co-founder and chief operating officer of the mobile application company One Inc, is part of that unsatisfied group. He buys wi-fi on only about half of the weekly flights he makes between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"Fifty per cent of the time, it works really well and probably 50 per cent of the time on the SF to LA flight I can't even get Gmail to load," Mr Levy said. "It's sort of like a hit or miss."

Aerial wi-fi was kicked around for years as a concept before Boeing introduced Connexion, a service sold to airlines to deliver broadband via a global satellite network. Unveiled in 2000, the programme faltered as travel slumped after the 11 September terror attacks, and Boeing pulled the plug in 2006.

That left a void filled by Gogo, whose system of ground towers and mobile-phone spectrum grabbed the largest share of the US in-flight internet market, serving carriers including American Airlines and United Airlines. Gogo charges fees such as $14 for an all-day service.

Panasonic Avionics, Global Eagle and others jumped in, too, knitting together systems with satellites designed for direct-to-home television.Like the mobile-phone technology, the older spacecraft had limits on broadband speed. Gogo's system only provides a signal over land, creating hours-long web blackouts on overwater flights. "When you're stuck going far over the Atlantic for nine hours, there's only so many movies you can watch," said Matt Kepnes, who flies to Europe and South-east Asia about once a month for his New York-based travel blog, Nomadic Matt.

"I like getting on my computer and chatting on Facebook and talking to my friends, checking my email and getting some work done." Gogo plans to migrate to satellite to help expand overseas and boost speed, according to its chief executive Michael Small.

"Air-to-ground was a unique situation that worked just right in the US for us to get the early lead," Mr Small added. "But in the long run, it will be predominantly a satellite solution."

Still unsettled are technological questions such as which spectrum is most efficient for in-flight internet, leaving airlines to weigh conflicting claims.

Satellites for the Californian-based ViaSat and Inmarsat, which is based in London, use the higher-frequency Ka band, which potentially has twice the capacity, said Chris Quilty, an analyst at Raymond James Financial. Their Luxembourg-based rival Intelsat's Epic satellite will use the Ku band, the workhorse spectrum in the past decade, and will be able to match rivals' power, its chief executive David McGlade said.

Airlines' choices will lock them into one system or the other because antennas for the different bands are not compatible, echoing the VHS-versus-Beta videocassette battle. The cost of equipment and aircraft downtime for installation precludes switching easily, Mr Quilty said.

JetBlue's chief executive Mr Barger said the airline will start ViaSat wi-fi trials on three planes next month, before pushing the service to all its larger Airbus SAS planes next year.

Internet access will be free on the first 30 ViaSat-equipped planes, said Morgan Johnston, a spokesman. After that, there may be a fee for heavy use such as streaming videos. Mr Johnston said New York-based JetBlue is not discussing pricing, saying only the service will be "obtainable to anyone on the plane".

Passengers over time will want to be connected in the air like they are on the ground, for free, Mr Dankberg said. New satellites will lower airlines' internet cost to the equivalent of a beverage and bag of peanuts per passenger, prodding carriers to offer the service to everyone, he said.

"You go to Starbucks and you can get free wi-fi, but you don't feel obligated to use it," Mr Dankberg said. "That should become clear fairly soon that free is what people want."

With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein and John Lear