axxess-user1_thumb.jpgWith the invasion of WiFi everywhere, Internet savvy users will soon be able to use laptops and other internet devices in a place you might not expect: the air. While wireless Internet service sends signals through the air, there are numerous technical roadblocks to offering Internet to airline passengers. American Airlines and a small telecommunications company are fixing to change all that. The company, called AirCell, specializes in airborne connectivity and plans to harness earthbound Cellular towers to provide access.

This is not the first time that the Internet has been offered in the air. Lufthansa created a service that utilized satellites to provide access in the late 1990’s, but due to price considerations and the relative size and weight of the technology, discontinued the in-flight Internet. That endeavor was offered through a Boeing subsidiary called Connexions. Even though consumer response was very positive, experts in the airline industry say that the cost and bulky design of the instruments needed to relay Internet via satellite made widespread adoption unfeasible.

That’s where AirCell comes in. By offering the same Internet access that you can enjoy from your phone, they’ve found a way to provide planes with connectivity without having to uplink to a satellite. The technology is much more complex, however the solution and application turns out to be far cheaper than a satellite-based Internet uplink.

Currently however, Cell phone towers only “look” down; that is to say that they do not broadcast or receive signals from above. This means that without modification to existing towers, an entirely new network would need to be built. Which is not altogether undoable: because of the conical nature of a Cell Tower’s broadcast, the applicable range of a single tower would be up to 250 miles of sky space. This means that the entire continental United States could be covered for airborne Internet with as few as 100 new towers.

There’s only one significant obstacle: ground-to-air Internet will only work if there is a ground. I’m referring specifically to transcontinental flights between the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Since it is business travelers that would probably utilize in-flight Internet the most, this is certainly a major bump in the road. American Airlines is not the only company interested in in-flight Internet access: AirCell has approached many major Airlines and Lufthansa has maintained it’s in-flight satellite equipment, and are now shopping for a cheaper satellite service provider.

American Airlines is outfitting 15 of their Boeing 767-200 planes with ground-to-air connectivity equipment designed for use with AirCell’s planned network. The airline stresses that this will be just a test run—without major investment, the company stands to loose little should the “up-facing Cell towers” prove as infeasible as the Satellite uplink technique.