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Is it really Broadband?

The technology may be fascinating enough, but it's applications that matter - can Connexion be used for streaming audio and video and voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls? The answer appears to be pretty clearly yes.

Although Boeing won't talk about exactly how it provisions bandwidth on each plane for each airline, Patrick Schmid, a senior editor for our sister publication TomsHardware, said that a flight attendant told him that there was load balancing among users involved in keeping service reliable.

This is confirmed by his and other people's experience. Schmid was able to see fairly consistent performance of 20 kiloBytes per second (about 200 kbps) downstream and 5 to 10 kB/s upstream (about 50 to 100 kbps) (Figure 3). "You can surf all the Web sites at a speed that is between ISDN and slow DSL," he said after flying recently from Los Angeles to Munich.

Speed Test Results

Figure 3: Speed Test Results
(click image to enlarge)

Martyn Levy, vice president of business development at New Zealand-based RoamAD, tested throughput on a recent flight from Frankfurt to Singapore. He saw nearly 200 kbps downstream a well.

While this throughput seems ok for surfing the Web and checking email, latency could be a problem for users seeking to use voice messaging or VoIP services. Schmid also ran some ping tests during his recent flight and averaged around 900 msec to one website and 700 msec or so to another. Ping times varied, however, from a minimum of 600 msec to occasionally over 3 seconds. Keep in mind that these numbers include both the delay in the on-board wireless LAN as well as plane-to-satellite and satellite-to-ground legs.

Despite these less-than-stellar response times, early adopters like Schmid, Levy, and Alexander have used Skype for voice and found it acceptable. Levy said, "Skype voice worked fine provided you did not talk over each other." Schmid noted that both Skype-to-Skype and SkypeOut calls to the switched telephone network worked for him, although a noise-canceling USB headset is highly recommended. I tested one during a demonstration flight that worked beautifully.

Video is also an option even at the limited speeds. Schmid saw a passenger next to him using a Web cam, and I was able to get streaming video working via Apple's iChat AV in both directions (Figure 4) during a domestic Connexion demonstration flight that had one-fifth the bandwidth of a normal flight.

iChat Session

Figure 4: iChat Session
(click image to enlarge)

The biggest problem that passengers have reported is battery life on their laptops, which may make handhelds a more comfortable and reliable in-flight option for those outside of powered business-class/first-class seats. On a 14-hour flight, even two batteries might not last for the amount of work that could be carried out.

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