Update: Scandinavian airline plans test of airborne wireless LAN

Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) today said it plans to start tests this fall of in-cabin, high-speed wireless LAN access to the Web and e-mail services -- a move that analysts said will mark one of the first commercial airline uses of the technology.

SAS, a consortium of the national airlines of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, said it will equip a Boeing 767 used in North American flights with an 11M bit/sec, 802.11b wireless LAN connected to an onboard proxy server provided by Seattle-based wireless technology vendor Tenzing Communications Inc.

The proxy server in turn will communicate with ground-based networks over a 2.4K bit/sec ground-to-air satellite link. If all goes according to plan, the airline said, users in its planes will get Internet access at the same speed as an office desktop connection would provide.

To mitigate the slow speed of the air/ground connection, Tenzing will cache popular Web pages in its on-board server. E-mail will be transmitted to and from the ground on a store-and-forward basis at intervals during the flight, with e-mail attachments limited to 500K.

SAS needs to run the tests because international aviation authorities, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, have set exacting standards for the type of radio equipment that can be installed on planes in order to ensure that there's no interference with aircraft navigation systems.

Air Canada started a similar test with five aircraft last month using a Tenzing proxy server, with connections to the server provided through jacks on seat-back airphones. In addition, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. in Hong Kong has announced plans to outfit 62 of its planes with 1.5M bit/sec wireless LANs feeding a satellite link, with its service slated to start in April.

Dylan Brooks, an analyst at Jupiter Media Matrix Inc. in New York, said using wireless LANs to provide passengers with Internet connections "can save airlines a lot of money" when it comes to retrofitting their planes for the addition of such services. Other wireless vendors, including The Boeing Co.'s Connexion by Boeing unit, are working to develop systems with similar functionality as the one Tenzing makes, Brooks added.

SAS is also starting to install 802.11b wireless LANs at its 19 airport lounges through a partnership with Telia, a Sweden-based telecommunications company. Jan Olson, SAS vice president of product and service development, said in a statement that the combination of the air and ground high-speed wireless services "will create unique possibilities for e-mail and Internet access both on the ground and on SAS aircraft."

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