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Emails will soon become commonplace at 30,000 feet, following the satellite groups offering faster connection rates to planes in flight.

The first step to mile high web access and email is airlines introducing the third generation of in-flight entertainment systems. These will be based around an on board server holding a walled garden of content that passengers may access from their seats. This will be uploaded to the plane as it is being refuelled at the gate, using technology called Gatelink.

But passengers can also choose to access the web or send email, through the server using the satellite phone connection.

Currently, satellite phone services are available on many long haul flights, but connection rates have not been fast enough to allow airlines to offer all passengers data services.

The two satellite companies offering their networks to provide inflight services are Globalstar and Inmarsat.

Dick Smith, technical manager of the aeronautical division of Inmarsat, said: "What we are doing is bringing the system up to a higher speed. Currently it is running at 9.6kbps, but the new system will go at 64kbps like the land based system already in operation, enabling much cheaper email and file transfer."

At the moment it costs around $4.50 per minute to make a call from a plane. The new data transfer speeds will still mean an email in mid-air will be an expensive option, but it will cost significantly less per message.

Smith suggested that there would be some security issues for airlines to address. "They may wish to restrict access to some sites while in-flight," he said. Presumably it would be a bad thing for passenger to be able to access a site with instructions on how to fashion a bomb from a sickbag and overcooked spinach.

Airlines interested in the technology include Virgin, Singapore Airlines, SwissAir and United. ®

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