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Monday, January 12, 2009

Sky-High Wi-Fi

2009 will be known as the year that Wi-Fi went sky-high in the air over America.

Nowadays, more than 65 percent of business travelers and one third of all leisure travelers in the United States carry laptops with them when they fly. What’s more, about a third bring along Wi-Fi enabled phones and PDAs. And those numbers are increasing by the day. But until recently, said devices were unusable once a plane took off.

Although wireless Internet access availability in the wild blue yonder has been attempted before (in 2000, Boeing announced its Connexion for large airliners, but the system never took off), U.S. airlines are now truly getting on board with the concept. And this time, it’s likely to fly. That’s because, as airlines are looking for new services for which to charge fees, Wi-Fi is the perfect solution. It’s new, so customers won’t be enraged about paying for something that was previously free. It’s something customers want. And it’s something for which many a traveler (particularly those on expense accounts) will be happy to pay a premium. Some predictions say Wi-Fi will bring $1 billion in extra revenue to U.S. carriers by 2012.

Last August, American Airlines became the first domestic carrier to launch full wireless service on some of its flights. Customers traveling coast to coast can access broadband Wi-Fi services for $12.95 per flight, "enabling passengers to surf the Web, check any e-mail, instant message, access a corporate VPN and more," the carrier said in a statement. American is using the air-to-ground Gogo network of in-flight connectivity provider Aircell.

Delta is using the same system. Gogo is initially being introduced on Delta’s fleet of 133 MD88/90 aircraft and will expand to the rest of Delta’s domestic fleet through the first half of 2009. The airline expects to have 330 planes outfitted with Wi-Fi by the summer. Delta is following Aircell's pricing of $9.95 on flights shorter than three hours and $12.95 on longer flights, but "will look at package pricing and subscriptions," says Delta manager of global product development Chris Babb.

For techies, devices that communicate with the Gogo system include laptop computers with 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi capability, smart phones and other PDAs, and BlackBerry handheld devices. Coast-to-coast Gogo service is possible due to Aircell's national network of 92 transmitter sites.

Aircell is the first to bring full Internet capabilities to the in-flight domestic market, but other connectivity providers are securing deals with U.S. carriers and are ramping up their systems.

Aircell’s biggest competitor in the Wi-Fi wars is Row44, a satellite system designed for commercial aircraft. While Aircell’s is a ground-to-air system, Row44 is satellite-to-plane. The advantage to the latter--there is consistent connectivity, even over water.

The company demonstrated its system this past week during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Later this month, Row44 will have a free public trial on select Southwest and Alaska Airlines flights. Southwest is preliminarily installing the system on four of its jets, while Alaska is putting it on one.

Row44 CEO John Guidon says the price point will eventually be determined based on how the service is offered. “In some cases, the airlines will determine what the prices will be,” says Guidon. “But if the airline is not determining the price, then I think Row44 will be making a price in the $7.99 range for a domestic flight for a laptop. If you're on something like an iPhone or a PDA—and we can tell that, by the way—we'll charge you less, something like $5.99."

As for other U.S. carriers, Virgin America introduced Gogo Wi-Fi last November. By the second quarter of 2009, the airline expects to offer Wi-Fi on its entire fleet of planes. JetBlue has had limited Internet capabilities through LiveTV since the end of 2007. The free service enables connectivity through its seatback televisions, BlackBerrys and laptops. Yet, it can only access a limited number of services, including Yahoo! mail and instant messaging, Gmail, AOL, and Windows Live, which includes Hotmail and MSN e-mail accounts. Continental Airlines plans to use LiveTV to make in-flight Wi-Fi available early this year.

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