Lufthansa kick-starts broadband race again

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When Connexion by Boeing switched off its in-flight broadband connectivity solution at the end of 2006, its largest customer Lufthansa assumed another Ku-band satellite-based provider would quickly step in to take its place. "For us it means we must have a temporary interruption," it said at the time.

But a brief intermission turned into a long wait for Lufthansa, which held discussions with various would-be providers before finally this October confirming a much-rumoured deal with Panasonic Avionics to offer its eXConnect high-speed Internet service across its long-haul fleet.

Branded by Lufthansa as "FlyNet", the service will be reignited by Panasonic on the lion's share of 70 aircraft already fitted with Connexion hardware mid-next year. By the end of 2011 it should be on the full long-haul fleet. Mobile services, courtesy of Panasonic's partnership with AeroMobile, are also included.

The sheer size of the deal is noteworthy on its own, but Lufthansa's commitment holds broader implications for the industry, as it will set the standard for airborne communications on overseas flights, and help usher in a new era for broadband connectivity. Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber says broadband capability was key. "If we were going to do it, it was fully-fledged or not. Broadband is the name of the game."

Lufthansa's endorsement of eXConnect is already having an impact. "I can't even tell you the number of airlines that were sitting on the fence, saying 'I know we need to do this, I want to do this', but were not willing to pull the trigger. Since the Lufthansa story broke, the change in attitude by high-profile airlines has been tremendous," says David Bruner, Panasonic vice-president, global communications services. He expects to announce more airline deals before year-end.

It comes as Southwest Airlines is to equip its 550-strong Boeing 737 fleet with Row 44's Ku-band-based Internet solution in 2010. Also in the USA, where a dedicated air-to-ground infrastructure exists, Aircell has become a key provider of in-flight broadband, securing eight major customers. It is also developing a hybrid sytem, which would include a Ku-band service for overseas flights.