Connexion by The Boeing Co. recently announced that many air travellers will soon be able to buy rationally priced, satellite-based Internet service while cruising at 35,000 feet. The announcement was in sharp contrast to the first reports on this type of service and to what other vendors are trying to pass off as an in-flight Internet service.

I first heard about a service like this about three-and-a-half years ago. The folks working on the service at that time had rather unworldly expectations of what people would be willing to pay for in-flight Internet connectivity. According to news reports they were planning to charge between US$17.50 and $25 per hour.

You can pay as much as $15 per hour, but the normal pricing is a flat, per-flight charge. The rate starts at $14.95 for flights of less than three hours, raises to $19.95 for flights of three to six hours and tops out at $29.95 for flights of more than six hours. You can get a lower-cost metered rate if you only need to be on for a short period. This is more expensive than the normal hotel "high-speed" service, but I'd be willing to pay it on most medium to long flights.

Connexion by Boeing has put together a clear Web page that details this pricing structure and explains how the service works. The organisation equips each plane with Wi-Fi (802.11) access points and mounts a mechanically steered antenna in a dome on top of the plane. The antenna tracking is fast enough to keep contact with the satellite through most normal plane motions. The users connect to the system via a Wi-Fi network. Each plane has four receivers that are enabled as the traffic load to the plane requires.

The download capacity is 20 Mbit/s per transponder region (for example, the U.S.) with an upload speed of up to 1 Mbit/s. Signals are sent from the plane, bounced off one of eight geostationary satellites to one of four ground stations, then to the Internet. Round-trip times are in the 800 to 1,200 millisec range, good enough for Web surfing, instant messaging and Post Office Protocol or Internet Messaging Access Protocol e-mail access. Service coverage now extends from the West Coast to Japan the long way; Pacific Ocean coverage is scheduled to start in 2006.

This service provides real, unfiltered, interactive Internet access. This is very different from systems such as Verizon Communications' Airphone Jetconnect service , which doesn't provide interactive Internet access. You can use the Verizon service to retrieve your e-mail if you trust them with your logon name and password. The service is justifiably cheap at $5.99 per flight.

Lufthansa AG will be the first to roll out the Connexion by Boeing service (which Boeing will install on non-Boeing aircraft and yachts) with other European and Asian carriers to follow. No US carriers have signed up yet. I guess they're too busy trying to stay in the air to think of making things better for customers.

Disclaimer: People say lots of things about Harvard but "justifiably cheap" is not one of them. And the university never travels, so the above exploration is mine alone.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].