In-Flight Wi-Fi - Ready for Takeoff

Feature Articles

In-Flight Wi-Fi - Ready for Takeoff

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, IP Communications Magazines  |  June 01, 2011

In-flight broadband got off to a rough start. After reaching 30,000 feet early on, Boeing (News - Alert) grounded its Connexion service in August of 2006. But don’t fold up your tray tables up just yet. These days broadband on commercial aircraft is on the rise.

The number of airplanes on which broadband services is offered continues to increase. Connections are set to get faster. And coverage is getting better due to the growing use of satellite technology.

The biggest provider of in-flight Wi-Fi appears to be Aircell. At least 1,100 planes with nine airlines are outfitted with the company’s Gogo solution. And it’s currently installing its gear at a clip of 1.5 airplanes a day. An estimated 202 million passengers will board Gogo-enabled flights in 2011.

Gogo Wi-Fi pricing starts at $4.95 for up to an hour and a half of connectivity. There’s a 24-hour pass that sells for around $12 for those with connecting flights; an unlimited package for $34.95; and a $49.95 option allowing six Wi-Fi sessions on multiple airlines served by Aircell. Users can purchase the services while in flight or from anywhere via the company’s website.

Aircell declines to provide flyer take rates or the business model (and whether it involves revenue sharing with the airlines) on its services, but Aircell says usage is extremely promising and comments that the availability of Wi-Fi is causing some flyers to select flights and/or airlines based on that broadband availability.

The service is apparently popular enough that Aircell has been able to attract Google (News - Alert) to use its portal as a way to advertise its Chrome product. Google “owned” the Gogo portals on Airtran, Delta and Virgin America last year and offered passengers free Wi-Fi as part of the campaign. Aircell expects to do more of these kinds of promotional partnerships in the future.

Currently Gogo offers 3.1mbps of shared bandwidth per airplane using an air-to-ground, or ATG (News - Alert), solution. In the first half of 2012 Aircell plans launch services based on ATG-4 technology, which will quadruple the amount of bandwidth within Gogo-equipped airplanes. The move to ATG-4 entails adding directional antenna, dual modem and EV-DO Rev. B technologies to existing ATG systems. 

As of late April, all of the planes with Aircell’s service did U.S. routes only. But the company and its airline partners are working to make Gogo available on international flights as well. The international expansion, which calls for three aircraft per day to be outfitted with Gogo gear this year, is being supported by $35 million in financing Aircell closed in March.

Of course, transoceanic flights call for a different solution, given air-to-ground architectures are not an option when a plane is flying over an ocean. So Aircell plans to use Ka-band satellite on transoceanic flights starting in 2015.

The same satellite technology can be leveraged to supplement capacity on Aircell’s ATG and ATG-4 systems. Aircell expects Ka satellite – which can support speeds of 100mbps – to be in use for Gogo-equipped continental U.S. flights starting in 2013.

While Aircell offers its Gogo services on Air Canada, AirTran, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, United, US Airways and Virgin America flights, one big account that it doesn’t own is Southwest Airlines. A company called Row 44 Inc. services the fleets of Southwest Airlines and Norwegian Air Shuttle.

Row 44 currently offers service in North America, Europe and the Middle East, and is in the midst of expanding its service to the Caribbean, Mexico, North Atlantic and Russia. All of the above Wi-Fi services rely on satellite communications. And the company in April announced plans to expand its coverage across the globe by combining Hughes’s (News - Alert) HX modem platform with Intelsat’s IS fleet of Ku-band satellites.

“Row 44 continues to execute on our mission of helping airlines around the world provide an unparalleled in-flight broadband entertainment experience to their passengers,” says Row 44 President Gregg Fialcowitz. “Offering this extended coverage through two of the world’s largest and most trusted names in satellite broadband – Intelsat (News - Alert) and Hughes – ensures our future ability to deliver that premium experience to our airline partners and their passengers, no matter where in the world they fly.”

The Row 44 website says the company also is looking a Ka-band solutions, but adds that Ka-based gear and satellites are not yet available.

However, JetBlue recently announced it is working with ViaSat Inc. to use Ka-band satellite technology to outfit more than 160 planes. The first installations are planned to begin next year.

“Because the product will be the first of its kind for commercial aviation, the system must be tested and certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration prior to installation fleet-wide, a process that will be led by LiveTV, JetBlue’s wholly-owned subsidiary,” according to a JetBlue press release.

This is JetBlue’s second pass at onboard broadband. It’s previously announced solution, Kiteline, reportedly was available only on one JetBlue aircraft, BetaBlue. Continental Airlines also had announced its intentions to use Kiteline, but those plans were delayed last year and, evidently, were grounded. Continental became part of United Airlines – a Gogo customer – in a $3 billion merger announced a year ago last month.

Edited by Jennifer Russell


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