Boingo offers connection to in-flight Wi-Fi

Airliners are slowly coming closer to being just another place to tune in to a Wi-Fi signal.

Boingo Wireless Inc. announced a deal on Wednesday that will give its hotspot customers Internet access on flights that offer the Connexion by Boeing inflight Wi-Fi service. The partnership will remove the need for airline passengers to sign up for a separate Wi-Fi service and get a bill from Connexion by Boeing.

Connexion by Boeing, a division of The Boeing Co., offers inflight Wi-Fi on a number of flights by major international carriers, including Lufthansa AG, SAS AB (Scandinavian Airlines System), Japan Airlines System Corp., All Nippon Airways Co. Ltd. and SIA Group’s Singapore Airlines. The company charges passengers US$29.99 for access to the network on each long-haul flight.

Boingo offers users access to a network of Wi-Fi hotspots through customized client software. Customers pay a flat $21.95 per month fee for access to hotspots provided by many different service providers, said Scott Miller, director of retail services for the Santa Monica, California, company. Some networks, including the inflight hotspots, are “premium locations” for which there is an extra charge, he said. Boingo also provides the back-end systems for other service providers, including Earthlink Inc., BT Infonet Services Corp. and MCI Inc., to offer their customers consolidated access to hotspots.

Fliers with a Boingo account will get a $28.99 charge per flight on their regular monthly Boingo bill. The service is available immediately, and there are two introductory promotions. Right now, Boingo is offering one free in-flight Wi-Fi connection for new Boingo subscribers to a monthly account with a three-month commitment. And from May 17-23, the service will be free on all flights, Miller said.

Boingo decided to tie up with Connexion by Boeing so workers could be more productive in the air, Miller said. The inflight service, which uses a satellite connection to reach the Internet, offers a true broadband experience, he said. The relationship is not exclusive, but Boingo won’t bring in any other inflight Wi-Fi services unless they offer a comparable experience, he said.

By eliminating the need for a separate account with Connexion by Boeing, Boingo overcomes one hurdle to adoption of in-flight Wi-Fi but doesn’t address the biggest barriers, said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Charles Golvin. The biggest issue now is lack of availability: For inflight Wi-Fi to really catch on, finding it available will have to become the rule rather than the exception when users get on a flight, he said. Providers will also have to make fliers aware of it in many places, including the airline check-in gate and ticket-selling sites such as Expedia, he added. Price, though not an issue for very early adopters, will become an issue when providers want general passengers to log in, Golvin predicted.

In addition to surfing the Web, using instant messaging and exchanging e-mail, fliers can make voice calls using PC-based VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) systems such as Skype, Miller said. The call quality is fairly good despite latency problems caused by the satellite connection that can degrade call quality, he said.

“It’s not a social recommendation, but it is available,” Miller said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to mind if you make a 10-minute call to clear up a contract issue.”

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