Free look-see for low-cost e-mail aloft

 - December 10, 2007, 9:59 AM

For corporate aircraft passengers whose airborne Internet ambitions don’t extend beyond retrieving and sending e-mail, ASI, a small Australian communications engineering firm, is offering FreeMail, a service that allows users to access an e-mail inbox page and view the headers of waiting messages free of charge.

The service will allow passengers to stay online as long as they want and pay only for the data they accept or send when opening and downloading or sending a message.

The developer says that the software solution will operate aboard most aircraft that have satellite communication capability without the necessity of extensive hardware modification.

Users will pay only for the amount of data they access and not for online time because, said company president Ron Chapman, while current air-to-ground e-mail systems use circuit mode service, the FreeMail connection will be the first airborne e-mail application to operate in packet mode, which, while slower, is much less expensive. In circuit mode, charges accrue for as long as the user is online. With packet mode, the user pays only for the data transmitted.

Chapman explained that data compression and stripping Internet formatting out of a text e-mail before transmission minimizes bandwidth use and resultant cost.

The packet mode data service also provides the lowest-cost solution for delivery of short message service, starting from as low as 50 cents, said Chapman, and can give passengers direct access to surf the Internet or access their corporate virtual private networks.

ASI unveiled the FreeMail connection in September last year at the World Airline Entertainment Association convention in collaboration with Securaplane Technologies of Tucson, Ariz. Securaplane is handling FreeMail marketing to general aviation operators.

FreeMail Service
Launch of the air transport version of ASI’s e-mail service, Freemailconnection, will be on the Saudi Airlines 777-200 fleet in the second quarter of this year. “Al-italia has also successfully flight-tested our system, and at least four other major airlines are looking at the Inmarsat solution, which only we and Tenzing provide,” he added. Chapman expects FreeMail service over the Inmarsat Aero-H satellite network to be available to business aviation during the first half of this year.

Initial cost is projected at 50 cents per kilobyte of data. In the slightly longer term, ASI and Securaplane foresee the emerging Inmarsat BroadBand network, which will operate at 64 to 128 kbps and be upgraded to 432 kbps, carrying the FreeMail service next year.

The ASI group’s airline-configured system, designated “ASi-Qnet,” provides access to e-mail and the Internet for as little as $1, and in some cases for no charge, Chapman said. The Data3Mail format ASiQnet uses is based upon the data transmission protocol used for credit card and other secure banking transactions.

Existing in-flight entertainment (IFE) platforms and all new third-generation IFE platforms can support ASI’s e-mail service, he added. The ASiQnet software operates through the user’s existing e-mail accounts and Internet settings. Users will be able to access the software and register for the service via the ASiQnet Web site.