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Surf the friendly skies: Internet access coming soon at 35,000 feet

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NEW YORK (AP) _ For many busy people, a long airplane flight is one of the last places in life with guaranteed down time, away from the tentacles of e-mail and requests from the office.

That's about to change.

In 2003, several international carriers will begin offering high-speed Internet access via satellite. For now, it's basically a trial run so the airlines can figure out how much people are willing to pay to get online with their own laptops at 35,000 feet.

This toe-dipping comes as several companies stand ready to supercharge airplanes with a range of communications upgrades, such as giving passengers the means to send and receive e-mail and instant messages from their seats.

``It becomes a really strong productivity tool that gives people their time back,'' said Terrance Scott, a spokesman for Connexion by Boeing, which is offering the satellite broadband service. ``It keeps you in touch with things at a time when you haven't been able to do that.''

Connexion's service is expected to debut Jan. 15 on Lufthansa flights from Frankfurt, Germany, to Washington-Dulles. Scandanavian Airlines System (SAS), British Airways and Japan Airlines will try it next.

Lufthansa will offer the service for free for three months; British Airways plans to charge about $30 per flight.

That price sounds about right to Rob Vollmer, 32, a principal in Crosby-Vollmer International Communications, a Washington-based public-relations firm.

Vollmer, who has flown 140,000 miles this year, does so much work by e-mail that he sometimes feels compelled to surreptitiously check messages during flights with a wireless Palm device, though it's prohibited.

``If I could do so legally for a fee, I'd jump at the opportunity,'' Vollmer said. ``Going six to eight hours without the ability to send or receive e-mail is a form of torture,'' he said, offering proof: He once took an unnecessary flight from London to India because he missed an e-mail that warned him a meeting had been postponed.

Connexion's service requires installing two antennas on the plane, one to transmit data to satellites and one to receive data. A server and routing system inside the plane relay signals to and from plug-in ports at the seats or wireless networking cards in passengers' laptops.

The service promises speeds comparable to cable modems, with downloads up to 1 megabit per second. Even if everyone on board logged on at once, Scott said, the data transfer rate would not be less than 56 kilobits per second, comparable to dial-up.

Connexion eventually could use voice-over-Internet technology to let passengers make phone calls safely, Scott said. Mobile phones are banned in flight out of fear they can disrupt navigational systems and wreak havoc with cellular networks on the ground.

Boeing won't disclose the cost of installing Connexion. But it is considered far more expensive than simpler systems for planes that store data on a server and periodically connect with ground networks rather than maintaining a constant feed via satellite.

One such option, JetConnect, a Verizon Communications Inc. system that already is available on some Continental and United flights, uses the same network as Verizon's Airfones, those expensive handsets on seat backs.

For $5.99 per flight, travelers who hook their computers to JetConnect can play games, peruse certain Web pages that get updated every 15 minutes, and send and receive AOL, Yahoo and MSN instant messages. Verizon plans to add e-mail in mid-2003.

Similarly, Tenzing Communications Inc., which is backed by Boeing rival Airbus, can provide e-mail access and short text messaging. Cathay Pacific, Varig and Virgin Atlantic are customers; Tenzing expects to sign several more in 2003.

Several airlines, notably American, Delta and United, said in 2001 that they would buy Connexion's service, but those plans evaporated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when mere survivability became paramount for carriers.

Now, some carriers are showing renewed interest in Internet services in hopes they can generate incremental revenue, improve customer loyalty and provide new perks to offer in first and business class, said Rob Brookler, spokesman for the World Airline Entertainment Association. (Yes, amazingly, there is such an organization.)

Indeed, several frequent fliers seem eager to sign up.

Avi Steinlauf, a vice president at Edmunds.com, an autos Web site, said he'd ``easily pay up to $50 for broadband access on a cross-country flight.'' Robert Brooker, head of ICLUBcentral Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based software company, said $20 an hour ``seems like the right price point.''

Still, that sentiment might not be widespread. Tenzing is testing real-time satellite Internet connections but expects the market to lie in corporate jets rather than commercial aircraft, said Peter Lemme, Tenzing's chief technical officer.

Low-cost carrier JetBlue could offer Internet access relatively easily by adapting equipment it already uses to show live cable TV on flights via satellite. But JetBlue isn't convinced the Web would be heavily used.

``People are much keener to watch `TV Land' than draft proposals or write e-mails,'' JetBlue spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said. ``It's always been very politically correct to say, `Oh, I do all this work on all the plane,' but is that out of boredom? Wouldn't you rather have a beer and watch ESPN?''
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