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Is In-Flight Wi-Fi Cleared for Take Off?

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Much has been made about the value of in-flight Wi-Fi in recent years, but attempts to get it “off the ground” have largely failed.

2008, however, has seen lots of announcements and some actual movement toward deployments–in some cases, even big promises of delivering fleet-wide service by year’s end–so perhaps 2009 will finally be “the year of in-flight Wi-Fi.” For now, Wi-Fi can only be found on a smattering of flights, but on an increasing number of domestic airlines, including Alaska Air, U.S. Airways, American Airlines, Southwest, United Airlines, Virgin America, and Delta.

In most cases, Wi-Fi becomes another amenity that travelers have to pay for, typically $5.95-$12.95 depending on the duration of the flight, although Southwest is currently testing price points as low as $2 to see what the market can bear.

While some passengers welcome the down time an Internet-free flight can afford, among business travelers, in particular, there does seem to be a strong demand. A survey of frequent travelers conducted earlier this year by American Airlines Customer Research (sponsored by HP) showed that more than 47 percent of business travelers believed Wi-Fi was the most important airport amenity, outscoring basic travel needs, such as food by nearly 30 percentage points.

Up in the air

Among those making a bid for profitability as a provider is Row 44, a purveyor of satellite-based in-flight Wi-Fi for commercial aircraft, which announced Thursday that it has received a permanent operating license from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Row 44, which leverages its relationship with Hughes satellites to provide in-flight Wi-Fi to passengers, has an advantage over cellular providers because, unlike air-to-ground cellular, the Row 44 system allows airlines to offer online connections outside the U.S. and over oceans.

Alaska Airlines is testing the system and plans to expand the service to all its planes, depending on the outcome of the trial run. Currently, the airline Tweets its Wi-Fi flights daily (@AlaskaAir) and it lists the handful of flights with Wi-Fi here (updated daily). Southwest also Tweets its Wi-Fi flights (@SouthwestAir).

Row 44 has a license in Canada and a right to operate agreement in Mexico, as well as dozens of licenses for operations in other countries.

“Today’s announcement of the FCC’s ruling signals a major victory for Row 44 and our airline customers in our vision of bringing affordable broadband to the skies,” said John Guidon, CEO in a press release Thursday. “Ours is the first solution offering true broadband to airline passengers, both domestically and overseas, delivering an experience comparable to the high Internet speeds they enjoy at home and work. No longer will an airline be forced to accept an unattractive compromise between the performance it can offer and the service price it must charge. Achieving this critical regulatory milestone took us longer than we’d anticipated, but we believe our North American airline partners and their passengers will find this in-flight service well worth the wait.”

Wake me up before you…

Aircell has announced eight airline partners so far, the most recent being U.S. Airways, which signed on in July to offer Aircell’s Gogo Inflight Internet Service on its fleet of 50 A321 aircraft. The deployment is not expected to go live until 2010 at the earliest.

Aircell is also wisely targeting charter and managed aircraft. Its High Speed Internet unit for business aviation (the ATG 4000) was FAA-certified in June. It weighs just 11 pounds and its two belly-mounted antenna weigh only 1.25 pounds each. During installation, each aircraft receives an Aircell Axxess cabin system with an ATG 4000 unit. The integrated, open architecture communications suite provides high-speed Internet service via Aircell’s 3G cellular network in the continental U.S., which operates over a network of ground stations using exclusive broadband air-to-ground spectrum. Clients also have in-flight access to multiple channels of worldwide voice and narrowband data service via the Iridium satellite network.Aircell-ClayLacy_sm.jpg

Aircell High Speed Internet system clients include Clay Lacy Aviation, headquartered in Van Nuys, California (pictured right).

Aircell recently announced a new satellite-based system, as well. Its SwiftBroadband system (powered by Thrane & Thrane) has received full certification and is now shipping. The first installation is being completed by 328 Support Services GmbH at its Oberpfaffenhofen facility near Munich, Germany, aboard an executive Dornier 328JET operated by Aviando Services based in Venezuela.

SwiftBroadband enables passengers to use Wi-Fi-enabled laptops and smartphones for e-mail and ”light Internet services” in flight. The system also integrates VoWi-Fi to allow calls from cabin handsets.

“Executives want to remain productive by staying in touch while they fly and Aircell’s new SwiftBroadband solution fulfills that need perfectly,” said Dave Jackson, CEO of 328 Support Services in a press release July 29th. “Because it is so much faster, lighter, and more affordable than previous generations of global technology, the system makes in-flight connectivity a reality for a whole new segment of business aircraft.”

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