Boeing Considering Selling Connexion

June 22, 2006 Todd Underwood

According to the Wall Street Journal, Boeing is considering selling it’s Connexion in-flight Internet service. I recently told the story of watching my flight cross the Atlantic by watching global routing (bgp) alarms in the Renesys Routing Intelligence service. It was most decidedly cool. It was not a particularly practical use of our routing alerts technology, but it was a well-executed and incredibly useful Internet service offering. It would be a mistake for Boeing to pull this now.

I don’t travel internationally as much as some people, but I have been to Europe twice in the past year or so, and travelled in North America far too often on trans-atlantic flights. Of all of these flights, the Boeing Connexion Internet service was available on exactly one (a return flight from Germany to Boston on Luftansa). The roll-out of services like this is obviously complicated by regulations (what can be put in a plane), cost, time to retrofit, marketing and so on. But the reality is that six years after rolling out this service, business travellers still aren’t able to rely on the service being available on any particular flight. There hasn’t been a single airline who could commit to having Internet service working on all of its trans-atlantic or trans-pacific flights

Surely part of the problem is the cost. The hardware specs were just silly. “Five Cisco Aironet 350 Series Access Points have been fitted throughout the plane, along with one Cisco 3640 Router and nine Cisco Catalyst 3548 XL Series Switches.” Five access points? Seems excessive but I’m not an RF expert, so we’ll give it to them. Nine 3548 switches? Nine?!?!. 432 ports is an awful lot for a service that will be primarily used via wireless. The only plausible use case for the wired version of it is to save power in the laptop or deliver other services. Since there’s no indication of the latter, we’ll assume the former.

Which brings us to power. Power availability for laptops on planes is sporadic and unreliable, which is what brings such silly products to the market as a charger that works off of a headphone jack. If planes would just catch up with the modern age and provide at least DC outlets of a standard form factor at each row, if not AC outlets at each seat, business travellers would be able to rely on the overall environment to get more work done. Or, of course, in my case, to catch up on the many hours of precious television that I am behind.

This is a fairly classic conundrum and not one that is really Boeing’s fault. When a service is expensive to roll out, there is the temptation to roll it out slowly, piecemeal or in stages. The problem is that there are many services that simply will never develop a market until they are available consistently. Cell phone coverage is a good example of this. Internet/power availability on planes is clearly another.

The Connexion service is compelling. It’s a stunningly good value for business users (and even affordable for the rest of us when someone else is not paying the bill). It works well enough to get actual work done over an ssh session to a screen session. The web is reasonably fast and absolutely usable. The only shortcoming is the availability. Boeing needs to work with one or more airlines to make this service consistently available on all of a particular class of flights (transpacific, transatlantic, cross-continent) from a particular carrier. If they did that, I know a fair number of people who would actually prefer that carrier and a large number of others who would take advantage of the service once they found it. If Boeing can’t figure out how to do this, they really should sell the service to someone who can market it and develop it more effectively.

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