Broadband set for domestic flights early next year

Von Michael Crawford

Cheap broadband satellite services could be available on Australian domestic and international airline flights by the end of next year.

A combination of cheaper satellite access terminals, along with the launch of two new high-powered satellites to service the entire globe prompted traditional military, aviation and maritime satellite vendor Inmarsat"s aim at the consumer telecommunications market.

Inmarsat now has one, geostationary satellite covering the Indian Ocean region connecting Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia. The second satellite, due to be launched November 5 will cover the Atlantic Ocean and include both North and South America and the third will be launched in 2006 - with the view to providing complete global services by 2007.

Lisa Wagner, head of enterprise development for Inmarsat, said the company is trying to open new markets, but needs to overcome perceptions that satellite technology is too expensive to use.

Once the satellites are operation, according to Wagner, an airplane can be turned into a mini base station for satellite broadband.

"[Inmarsat] already provides cockpit communication so we can use the existing antennae on the aircraft; it is a great way for airlines to make extra money, and who doesn"t want to check e-mail on the flight?" Wagner said.

Wagner said various aviation authorities are currently testing the use of satellite phones on flights, and Inmarsat is developing pricing models. Wagner said the company is looking to offer initial services as early as next year.

Terminal prices will be around A$750 (US$570) and offer speeds of 492Kbps for voice and data.

The move is part of a global trend with almost half the world"s airlines planning to offer some form of in-flight communications for passengers by the end of 2007, with most favoring Internet access, e-mail and SMS (short messaging service).

According to a new study released this week more than a third of airlines surveyed said they expect to let passengers use mobile phones on planes by that time.

The Airline IT Trends Survey, published annually by SITA a provider of IT services to the air transport industry, covered senior IT executives at the world"s top 200 airlines. Those that responded account for two-thirds of the world"s airline revenue.

Communications services are designed to snag new customers and build loyalty at a time when many airlines are struggling to turn a profit. Airlines are also turning increasingly to self-service systems, such as online ticket sales and check-in kiosks, to cut costs and move customers through airports more quickly, the survey found.

About 70 percent of the world"s airlines now sell tickets through the Internet, with 30 percent of all tickets issued electronic, up from 19 percent a year ago, SITA said.

In the Asia-Pacific region technology investments are particularly strong thanks to growing ticket sales. Asia-Pacific airlines are now the leading innovators, according to the survey, particularly with communications services for business travellers.

The Boeing Company and Intel earlier this year announced plans to promote high-speed, in-flight wireless Internet services, and said they have successfully finished compatibility tests with laptops that use Intel"s Centrino mobile technology.

Eight airlines are using the service, known as Connexion, including Japan Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, Lufthansa and Korean Air.

Singapore Airlines offers Internet access to passengers on flights between Singapore and London and added live television to the service in June this year.

(James Niccolai of the IDG News Service contributed to this report)