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Faster Flying

Battle in the skies

This is a crucial year for inflight connectivity as British Airways trials rival satellite systems. Phil Heard reports.

If you’re flying long-haul with British Airways and your scheduled aircraft is a Boeing 747, then you might be about to become a guinea pig.

One aircraft, registration G-CIVG, is now fitted with the technical wherewithal to enable inflight connectivity.

Many US airlines have been on offering inflight connectivity on domestic routes for a while. BA has many trans-oceanic routes, which for obvious reasons do not offer a network of ground stations to plug into. The only option is to look upwards for satellite options.

The Airbus A318s that ply the London City to JFK route already offer a text/SMS service using ‘L’ (for ‘low’) band technology. But it’s not broadband as we know it, so the battle lines are drawn between Ku and Ka bands.

“Ku uses existing satellites and you lease capacity space from the satellite’s owner, while Ka uses a dedicated network of satellites,” explains Richard D’Cruze, the airline’s product development inflight technical manager. “Because Ku runs from a network you can get coverage just about anywhere in the world, while Ka is good for short-haul aircraft because at the moment there’s a satellite over the US and a satellite over Europe.”

The trial aims to assess the technology and the demand. “For every person that tells me they want wi-fi, someone else says ‘don’t you dare’,” says D’Cruze.

The naysayers will be pleased that that voice cell will be switched off, but for those interested, there will be a walled garden, High Life Connect, available over wi-fi. Here, for no charge, will reside 50 streamable movies and four live TV channels. Additionally, there are a number of free websites, some retail options, plus access to most of the wider internet (some sites and services like Skype are blocked) for a fee via a T-Mobile hotspot. Use of these sites will help the assessment of connectivity demand.

“The jury is still out on whether it’s a service that is really valued,” says D’Cruze. “But we have to make a decision for the new aircraft that arrive from 2017.”

Either way, the scheme was given an unexpected filip, when Tim Berners-Lee,  inventor of the world wide web, found himself on one of the first flights and took to Twitter: “First transatlantic wifi for me on @British_Airways on 747 G-CIVG well done BA (Skype seems blocked :-( but HTTP, IRC OK) #trial #YMMV.”