Sending emails from Arctic Circle

In January I traveled to Europe from Seattle on an unplanned trip. Buying a ticket at the last minute, I ended up with Lufthansa which flies between Seattle and Frankfurt over a very northerly route through northern Canada, crossing over north of Hudson Bay and mid Greenland, very close to Arctic Circle.

One of the perks of flying with Lufthansa is their on board WiFi service Flynet. Lufthansa is making its second attempt in providing on-board WiFi service. From mid-2004 till the end of 2006 Lufthansa has operated FlyNet using service and equipment from Connexion by Boeing. After Boeing cancelled the service, Lufthansa apparently bid their time looking for another partner. Panasonic Avionics has stepped in to provide communications services as well as in-flight entertainment. As it turns out Panasonic Avionics obtains equipment and services from Aero Mobile which is a company owned by Telenor as well as Ku-band satellite service from Intelsat. Limited uplink coverage in northern latitudes explains why the service was unavailable during a portion of the flight.

In this mish-mash of companies there is also  T-Mobile Germany that provides the Internet connectivity services. Lufthansa currently offers only Internet access service but planning to start offering GSM/GPRS roaming services using DCS1800/PCS1900 before the year-end. As a promotion Lufthansa was offering free WiFi for all passengers until the end of January. Following are simple test results on-board the plane.

While flying to Europe (on January 19th) I recorded the throughput and the ping results using Speedtest.net. Even though the test was conducted somewhere over the Atlantic, since Internet peering point for T-Mobile is in Germany, I am directed to a nearby speedtest server. Considering the entire satellite link is rated at 5 Mb/s downlink / 1 Mb/s uplink, achieving 3.1 Mb/s with over 800 ms round-trip delay was quite pleasant.

I decided to use a ping test server offered by Speedtest and obtained the following result. As it can be seen from the results stability of the network is quite good resulting in no packet loss. However, having over 900 ms delay with close to 60 ms jitter reminded me of what we used to measure at the beginning of last decade when GPRS networks were being brought in service.

FlyNet uses Access Points from Colubris Networks (Canadian WiFi company that was acquired by HP back in 2008). From about the middle of the plane I managed to see the broadcast SSID of 7 Access Points (APs). FlyNet uses Telekom_FlyNet as its public SSID. Every AP also broadcasts a hidden SSID for private networking. FlyNet uses channels 1, 6 and 11 supporting 802.11g at 2.4 GHz. From my seat (roughly the mid-point in the Economy class) I managed to see two APs at -72 dBm. Certainly this is well beyond the receiver sensitivity level to saturate that 5 Mb/s satellite link.

Throughout the period I scanned the 2.4 GHz spectrum, I saw 24 devices (including my laptop). Out of 24, there were 3 devices scanning the network to associate with an AP. For the rest of the devices, one of them associated with 6 APs, eight of them associated with 4 APs, three of them with 3 APs, two of them with 2 APs and other ten devices stayed associated with one AP. Busiest AP had 18 devices associated with. During the period I scanned (roughly 40 minutes), only 11 devices sent or received traffic. Apart from my bandwidth tests I have not observed any AP carrying more then 200 Kb/s of traffic during this period.

Inventory of devices using the WiFi has shown the dominance of Apple thanks to iPhone. Out of 24 devices, 14 carried Apple MAC addresses, 6 were Intel (probably laptops/netbooks), 1 Samsung, 1 Lite-On, 2 Foxconn manufactured devices (probably laptops/netbooks since Foxconn manufactured Apple products use Apple MAC addresses). This obvious dominance of Apple devices may also be explained by more aggressive use of WiFi clients in iPhone. Nevertheless it was amazing not to hear a single Blackberry or Symbian phone. Only exception was a Samsung handset.

Lufthansa is selling the service at 10.95 Euros (1-hour pass) and 19.95 Euros (24-hour pass). It would be interesting to see what the adoption would like for paid service. My limited observation gave me the impression that passengers are not rushing to adopt mobile services on-board an airplane. This might also be explained with the fact that WiFi still requires an effort unless the device client happens to be “intelligent” to pick the right network and register / pay for service without interaction from the user. Alternative to this is allowing passengers to use their GSM / UMTS mobile devices as if they are roaming on a foreign network. Since international roaming is one of the true success stories of GSM family of mobile communications, relying on the same method seems to be what Lufthansa and other airline carriers have in mind.

That is exactly why Lufthansa is promising to start GSM/GPRS service using a pico-cell within every plane starting sometime this year. Unlike WiFi, launching a flying GSM/GPRS mobile network is quite a significant undertaking. This deployment scenario is somehow akin to user-deployed femtocells and how they require mitigation techniques to resolve any conflicts with the macro networks. That is why I will dedicate my next blog to this topic.

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