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Wednesday, July 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Farnborough Air Show
Tenzing technology to give air travelers use of own phones

By David Bowermaster
Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Tenzing Communications, a Seattle-based developer of in-flight e-mail and text-messaging services, will team with Airbus and SITA of the Netherlands to enable airline passengers to make wireless calls on their own phones during flights.

The service will not be available in the United States for some time, however. The partners plan to launch the mobile phone service on intra-European flights in early 2006, according to Alex McGowan, vice president of sales and marketing at Tenzing.

If all goes well, they will subsequently roll it out to Asian and American airlines, but a deployment schedule is not set.

Tenzing, Airbus and SITA will officially present their plans at a news conference today at the Farnborough air show.

The three companies will form a new enterprise to develop the mobile telephony application and other in-flight services, including high-speed Web surfing on handheld devices and laptop computers.

Tenzing will be folded into the new venture, which will be headquartered in Europe, but its 65 employees will remain in Seattle.

SITA will be the majority shareholder of the yet-to-be-named company. The three partners collectively will provide $50 million to $100 million of equity and cash investments to get the venture off the ground, said Alex Duff, Tenzing's chief financial officer.

"The aim of the new company is to become the world's leading provider of cabin connectivity products and services," said Francesco Violante, managing director of SITA. "These services will seamlessly extend the personal communications world of all travelers to the aircraft cabin."

SITA is probably best known for Aircom phones, which are on more than 1,100 long-range jets flown by more than 60 airlines.

The goal of the new venture is to develop a shoebox-sized receiver that will function onboard like a cell-phone tower does on the ground, sending and receiving calls from wireless users and relaying them into the ground-based telecommunications network.

McGowan said the boxes will weigh about 20 pounds each.
 
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To transmit the calls, radios onboard will bounce them off a network of satellites.

The receiver and radio technology are under development, but McGowan is confident things will be ready by 2006.

Regulatory challenges could prove more difficult. Government officials, pilots and air-traffic controllers are wary of any technology with the potential to interfere with air-to-ground communications. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, heightened those concerns.

Airbus has extensive experience dealing with aircraft certification bodies around the world, so it will do the heavy lifting on regulatory issues.

Tenzing currently offers low-data-rate e-mail and text-messaging services on hundreds of airplanes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Usage of the service has suffered, however, because a fee of 10 cents per kilobyte is added to any e-mails greater than 5 kilobytes in size (about 225 words). The baseline fee is $15.98 per flight. Also, Internet access is not available.

Starting Aug. 1, the extra fees will apply only if Tenzing customers open large attachments to e-mails; e-mails themselves can be any size or length.

The venture will begin offering high-speed Internet services in 2005, when satellite-service provider Inmarsat launches the first of three new high-powered satellites that will offer broadband data services worldwide when the full network is deployed in 2006.

Offering such services is essential if Tenzing and its partners wish to portray themselves as a viable alternative to Connexion, Boeing's new high-speed Internet service, which recently debuted on some of Lufthansa's fleet of long-haul jets.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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