Coffee, Tea … or Broadband?

There's new hope on the horizon for in-flight Internet access.

We surf the Web in Starbucks, airport concourses, and club lounges. But in the air? Forget it. The most ambitious attempt so far, Boeing's Connexion service, folded in December. The problem wasn't lack of passenger demand. Turns out the satellite-based service was simply too expensive … for the airlines. The on-board antenna system, at an estimated cost of $500,000 and 800 pounds, was a huge burden as fuel prices soared. Single-aisle planes serving U.S. routes simply couldn't carry it.

Two big developments, though, have revived the dream of in-flight connectivity. Australian startup ASiQ is shopping around an on-board antenna system weighing just 66 pounds with a mercifully lighter $60,000 price tag. Passengers will pay $3 to connect, plus one cent per kilobyte of data usage. Saudi Airlines will introduce the service in late 2007, and ASiQ president Ron Chapman says more partners are coming.

But the biggest break for data-starved fliers could come from Louisville, Colorado—based AirCell. It owns a chunk of broadband spectrum for direct air-to-ground communications that would make expensive satellites unnecessary, at least for domestic flights. AirCell will operate a series of base stations—just like mobile-phone companies—and equip planes with an "antenna about the size of a Coke can," according to president Jack W. Blumenstein. Service plans should be similar to Starbucks', with one-time access about $10 a pop. The network will launch late next year or early 2008; in-flight entertainment will never be the same.

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