Airlines Get Ready to Test Fledging Wi-Fi in Flight

JetBlue

JetBlue offered free wireless service as a test aboard one of its A320 jets last December. The service runs over a network called Kiteline, provided by LiveTV, which is also used to provide free in-flight television, a spokeswoman said. With the service, users can send e-mail and text messages through a variety of platforms, including Microsoft Exchange. JetBlue also has a contract with Amazon.com that enables passengers to make purchases from the online retail site via the wireless service.

So far, the spokeswoman said, JetBlue testing aboard the single aircraft has been "very successful," and the airline plans to use feedback from the test to develop a plan for a fleetwide rollout.

Both AirCell and Row 44 said they are working with other airlines considering in-flight Wi-Fi service, although they declined to name any.

A Big Draw or a Pricey Risk?

While the airlines and equipment providers are publicly optimistic about their rollout plans, analysts said questions remain about the market for the service as well as the capability of the technology.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass., said the airlines are probably taking time to weigh the costs of the new equipment against the number of passengers they expect to be willing to pay for it. "Can the airlines make this affordable and offer enough performance so that I will want to use the service?" Gold asked.

Many factors will come into play, including whether the shared Wi-Fi bandwidth will be sufficient to support performance that meets the needs of all of the users on a crowded business flight, Gold said.

The signal that AirCell is sending to planes works on an EV-DO Rev A cellular standard in an exclusive, licensed 800 MHz channel. With this arrangement, Gold said the signal in the Wi-Fi zone aboard a plane could be less than what users normally get with Wi-Fi.

"We are all are used to fast Wi-Fi now, and people can be very unforgiving of bad service," he said.

However, AirCell's chief technology officer, Joe Cruz, said the "effective user experience" will equal up to 12.4 Mbit/sec. because Aircell uses network optimization and acceleration technology.

Gold also questioned what would happen if a plane leaves its normal pathway to avoid a storm or air traffic, and he wondered how quickly a disrupted signal could be restored. Addressing those concerns, Cruz said that Aircell will have "blanket" coverage to prevent outages, and plans to expand its current 92 cell sites to nearly 500 in the next 18 months.

Gold also noted that Wi-Fi saps device batteries, meaning airlines will need to install power at every seat for long trips. (American said it already has many power outlets.)

Those concerns aside, there are still questions regarding cost and financing. AirCell and Row 44 presumably have developed technology that's more affordable than an older, discontinued wireless service called Connexion by Boeing, which was installed on Lufthansa and ANA planes, and was reported to cost more than $1 million per plane, Gold said. None of the airlines interviewed would comment on the cost of installing the technology.

Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney said the Connexion service was "very stable" and had minimal power needs, based on his experience. It failed, ultimately, because it was often available only on night flights when people weren't interested in using it, Dulaney said. Carriers will need to offer the service on the right routes, including daytime business routes with busy laptop users, he added.

The way the airlines finance of the service -- not just the performance of the technology -- will be the key to the success of in-flight Wi-Fi, Dulaney added. "If it required a capital outlay, domestically, I don't think the airlines could afford it," he said, referring to the tight economics that airlines have been facing for years.

McAdoo said he is unsure how popular Wi-Fi on planes will be, but he said it is clear that there will be some users, just as there are Wi-Fi users at airports. It's also possible that a renegade airline such as Southwest will find it so potentially popular that it sells monthly subscriptions to regular passengers, he said.

Wendy Campanella, director of business development at Row 44, said internal market studies have shown that Wi-Fi demand on planes will go beyond business travelers to younger leisure travelers who are accustomed to going online for entertainment and other needs.

"We do believe absolutely that broadband is coming to air travel and in the end will be a must-have service for airlines," Campanella said.

If Wi-Fi on planes proves popular, airlines would have to move fast to roll out the technology on hundreds of planes, McAdoo said. American and Southwest each have more than 500 planes, and even if two planes could be converted each week, it could take years to equip a majority of them.

"It's a slow spool up," McAdoo said. But Campanella disagreed, saying it could be a fast turnaround. Row 44 antennas and other equipment could be installed on a plane over the course of two nights during routine maintenance.

Wi-Fi service is the kind of offering that could excite airlines like Southwest that are willing to try new approaches, McAdoo noted. Even though all five airlines interviewed for this story said they don't believe their customers would want voice-over-Wi-Fi service, McAdoo predicted that the anti-phone-use attitude could change, meaning the airlines would need to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to change its current restrictions.

Noting that Ireland's Ryanair Ltd. is rolling out wireless technology to support both data and voice aboard its planes serving Europe this summer, McAdoo said the experience there could influence U.S.-based carriers.

"Ryanair is the Southwest Airlines of Europe, very successful and a little bit renegade," McAdoo said. "It will be interesting to see how voice does. Companies change for competition. They're always saying, 'What's next?'"

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