AT&T Joins Airborne Web Scramble

Thursday, August 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Still costing dollars per minute to use, the telephone lines on airplanes aren't the most inviting way to make a call, let alone connect with the Internet at speeds most would consider primitive.

Now the race is on to deliver speedier in-flight access to e-mail and the Web through those very same phone lines at far less intimidating prices.

AT&T Wireless Aviation, the No. 2 purveyor of in-flight telephone service in North America, announced a new service this week dubbed ePlane that the company hopes to sell to its airline customers, which include American Airlines and Northwest Airlines.

Airfone, the Verizon Communications unit that dominates the North American market, plans to test a competing service starting next month with an undisclosed airline on a few aircraft, the company told The Associated Press.

But despite the rush of high-profile ventures, including one launched by aircraft maker Boeing and an alliance led by News Corp. and Qualcomm, it should be at least a year before most airlines will offer easy Web access from the sky.

Initially, the most obvious connection point for laptops and other portable devices will be through the telephone jacks on the in-flight phones that are already embedded in the backs of airplane seats. That way, there's no need to rewire an entire aircraft, cutting down on costs and the time a plane sits on the ground, unable to generate revenues for an airline.

With that in mind, both Airfone and AT&T acknowledge it might be easiest, cheapest and quickest for the airlines to stick with whichever company provides in-flight phone service. Therefore, both companies face long odds in prying airline customers away from each other.

``This is very much an airline-specific decision,'' said Mike Kuehn, director of technical services for Airfone.

Kuehn estimates his company's in-flight phone systems are installed in 62 percent of all commercial jetliners flying North American routes, including those flown by United Airlines and US Airways.

``We've got the largest share of the market, so we've got the copper already laying in many airplanes,'' he said. ``But AT&T also has a system on other airlines, and there will be different solutions on different carriers.''

No matter who provides the service, the biggest question would seem to be whether Internet users accustomed to surfing the Web without being timed by the minute will be willing to pay the astronomic fees that are charged for in-flight phone calls. Business travelers make frequent use of in-flight phones to stay in touch from the air, but calling rates of up to $5 per minute are a bit of an indulgence for the budget-conscious leisure traveler in coach class.

While right now, both Airfone and AT&T charge by the minute to hook up a laptop computer to the in-flight phone jack at woefully slow speeds, neither company foresees a by-the-minute payment scheme for their future offerings.

Instead, they foresee a by-the-flight approach similar to the way a single fee is charged for movie headphones, or possibly a monthly fee for frequent flyers.

Although the different pricing for in-flight Web services may attract a wider audience than the phones, there are more practical reasons why Internet access can be delivered to more air travelers more cheaply.

Because each phone call requires a continuous connection from the plane to the ground, the in-flight phone systems on most planes can only handle between four and eight calls at a time. But with digital communications such as e-mail and Web pages, all the information can be scrambled together and reassembled at the other end, making more efficient use of each radio channel.

In AT&T's case, the ePlane system attempts to overcome the limitations of those channels by providing a streamlined version of the Web through an on-board computer server that is updated only periodically instead of continuously. Initially, the ePlane system would provide capacity for up to 1 million Web pages updated once an hour, with the selection potentially customized for different routes, while e-mail transmissions would be exchanged with the ground at more frequent intervals of 15 to 30 minutes.

The new News Corp.-Qualcomm venture says it can overcome some of the capacity hurdles by beaming the information up from the plane rather than down to the ground, using the satellite-based telephone system operated by Globalstar. The venture, named In-Flight Network, tested a prototype of its system on a North American flight in June.

``Making these systems work is a very serious engineering task,'' said Jeffrey M. Wales, the News Corp. executive named CEO of In-Flight Network, which down the road hopes to add streaming video services such as movies and live sports events. But, he added, ``the time frames for launching this type of service are much more a function of airlines'' making decisions on service providers ``and the operational considerations to equip a fleet.''