Surfing at 40,000 Feet



You already knew that you could surf and check e-mail in several airports, but what about while you’re in the air itself? You can’t use a cell-phone. If you did connect, you’d connect to every tower in your line of sight and a few minutes of checking e-mail could cost several thousand dollars. You could call your regular ISP from a seat-back phone, but that costs $3 a minute and the connection is only 10 Kb/s.

Now there’s a solution, from Tenzing Communications, which will be both faster and less expensive than the seat-back phones. There are several different configurations of the system and only some of these would work with Pocket PCs.

Like some of the early earth-bound wireless systems, it doesn’t work with AOL, web-mail, and many e-mail systems. It offers only a small selection of pre-loaded web sites and is available on only a few airlines. It does, however, support Microsoft Exchange. The system is actually a local area network and server that relays passenger requests to the Internet on the ground via radio.

One configuration of the Tenzing system uses a 56K modem and a phone line to connect to the network. There is software provided but you can also hook up by creating a dial-up networking connection like you’d use to dial up an ISP from home. You can even use Pocket InBox as it is. No new settings are required. Other configurations use a USB connection to the network. Still others use an 802.11b wireless connection that could work with an 802.11 enabled Pocket PC.

Checking e-mail is a two-step process. First, you request your e-mail, which prompts the server to load it from the ground. That can take several minutes because it takes place at the same speed as it would on the seat-back phone. The thing is that you don’t have to wait for it. You simply quit and request the mail later. The system will have uploaded it by then and it will be available at the speed of the network.

The pricing on the Tenzing system isn’t finalized yet but they estimate it will run about $5-$20 to download up to 500KB. The pricing is based on bandwidth.

While a number of carriers are adding the Tenzing system and counting on upgrading when faster communications are available, Boeing is already talking to carriers about Connexion, a satellite-based broadband service which should be available in 2002. Connexion will allow real-time internet access.

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