The Sky Is the Limit as Boeing and Airbus Battle for Internet Supremacy ; BUSINESS ANALYSIS: Want to Email the Boss from 35,000 Ft? or Just Surf the Web. Now You Can as On-Board Communication Enters a New Era
Harrison, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
THE OFFICE in the sky took a further step towards becoming reality yesterday when Emirates announced it will be the world's first airline to offer its passengers wireless access to their email systems.
The Dubai-based carrier is using a technology developed by a small company in Seattle and formed six years ago by a British scientist and an Australian colleague.
Tenzing Communications now has its in-flight communications system in service on more than 800 aircraft and, with yesterday's deal, Emirates became its eighth airline customer. The other seven, among them Cathay Pacific, United Airlines, Continental and Iberia, connect customers to email through conventional fixed telephony points.
The market for in-flight communications systems - enabling passengers not only to send and receive emails and text messages but surf the internet and connect to company-run private virtual networks, could be worth $10bn by the end of the decade. As many as 4,000 aircraft could be equipped to offer passengers internet access, according to industry estimates.
If everything goes to plan, then Tenzing intends to capitalise on this airborne communications boom by floating in the next 18 months to two years, making multimillionaires out of its two founders, David Lowe and David Coe, who is now chairman of the company.
It would be tempting to see this as one more dot.com success story born of entrepreneurial endeavour. That would be true only in part. It is also about the continuing battle for supremacy between the world's two big commercial aircraft manufacturers, Airbus Industrie and Boeing.
Airbus became a shareholder in Tenzing two years ago and is helping bankroll its development. Boeing, meanwhile, is developing a rival system known as Connexion by Boeing. Time will tell whether there is a market for both systems or whether, rather like VHS versus Betamax and the CD versus Digital Audio Tape, only one technology is destined to survive.
The business models behind the two systems are quite different. Tenzing, which also counts Rockwell and Cathay among its shareholders, got into the market much earlier than Boeing because its system is simpler, cheaper and, for now at least, much more limited in its applications.
The Tenzing system entered service with Cathay more than a year ago and is now installed on more than 800 aircraft around the world. Although Boeing has so far signed up seven airline customers, its Connexion system does not start commercial service until March, and then only on a handful of long-haul Lufthansa aircraft - ironically enough Airbus A340s.
Installing Tenzing involves the comparatively simple task of incorporating the company's software into an aircraft's existing in- flight entertainment and communications system. Passengers are then connected to their email through the global Inmarsat network of satellites. Passengers can only send and receive emails or text messages. The charge for connecting a laptop to email is between pounds 5 and pounds 10 a time depending on the length of the flight while the flat-rate charge for sending a text message is $2.50 (pounds 1.40).
Boeing has opted for a much more ambitious system offering passengers full high-speed internet access enabling them to surf the web, connect to their own private networks and even download films and music. To provide this broadband-in-the-sky service, each aircraft must be taken out of service for several weeks to be retro- fitted with a special antennae. Once in service, passengers on an eight-hour flight - say from London to New York - will pay a flat- rate charge of pounds 20 for unlimited internet access. …