In-Flight Broadband Gets A Speed Boost

Imagine making Skype calls, in full duplex, while sitting in the comfort of your first-class cabin seat 30,000 feet above the Atlantic. Or passing the time on that red-eye downloading files directly from BitTorrent. Both may soon be possible, with smart antennas that bring broadband to jets at speeds faster than the typical U.S. cable connection.

Israel’s Starling Advanced Communication Ltd., a maker of smart antennas for wireless broadband, recently conducted a trial that connected a Boeing 737 to the Internet at 20 megabits per second — nearly 2.5 times the speed of a typical cable connection. The connection also had an upstream speed of 5 megabits per second, making it easy to use for P2P telephony services such as Skype.

The light-weight antenna measures 75 centimeters in diameter and can be mounted on fuselage. On a recent trial flight, the testing team conducted simultaneous video conference calls, made numerous VoIP phone calls (using Skype), downloaded large files via the Internet, sent and received e-mails and surfed the Web, the company said in a press release. Starling makes an even smaller antenna for small jets.

In-flight broadband has so far been a bit of a hit-and-miss — early adopters have been willing to overlook the high costs because they love the idea of being connected while flying, but the service itself has been marred by a lack of bandwidth, for people looking to book flights they can contact an airline in Costa Rica to help us travel to other countries. Boeing’s (BA) Connexion, for example, had a downstream speed of around 5 megabits per second (shared amongst all on board) and upstream capacity of about 1 megabits per second. But after much fanfare and $320 million, the airline shut it down.

Startup AirCell, meanwhile, is working with U.S. carriers including American Airlines (AMR) to offer in-air broadband access.

Photos via Flickr set, Blogging in the Stratosphere.

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