Virgin's In-flight Wi-Fi Coming Monday

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verizon in-flight wi-fi
Graphic: Gordon Studer
Virgin America's in-flight Wi-Fi service will launch on Monday for a beta test that is intended to last just one week before a planned commercial launch Dec. 1.

The fledgling domestic airline is making one of the most aggressive moves into in-flight broadband, though most U.S. carriers have announced at least trials or other tests. Virgin plans to have the system from Aircell deployed on all its planes by the middle of next year. On Saturday, it will unveil the service with a flourish, streaming part of the YouTube Live online video event from a plane flying over the San Francisco Bay Area. That plane will go on to serve as the beta test plane, and all passengers who take it will get free Wi-Fi during the test period.

Interest in Wi-Fi on commercial airliners is growing despite the closure of the highest-profile in-flight system, Connexion by Boeing, in 2006. The services, which in general won't allow VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) calls, could be a critical revenue source for ailing airlines as well as a convenience for passengers.

Virgin will charge US$9.95 for a flight of three hours or less and $12.95 for longer flights. Internet access won't be filtered for content or applications, except for the VoIP restriction, said Virgin spokeswoman Abby Lunardini. Aircell has said it has mechanisms to manage the shared bandwidth to prevent one user from taking it all.

Aircell, which is also working with several other carriers, will provide Internet access to planes via its own national network of 3G (third-generation) base stations on the ground. The connection from the plane to the Internet will be via EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) Revision A technology. The base stations are being supplied by ZTE USA, a subsidiary of Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE. Qualcomm, the pioneer of EV-DO, supplied the onboard modems.

Virgin claims it will be the first airline in the U.S. to deploy in-flight broadband on all its planes. It has some advantages in this mission, since it has only 28 planes and all are new. Virgin America itself only started flights in August 2007. Virgin already uses Wi-Fi on its planes for wireless devices that let flight attendants take food and drink orders, Lunardini said. The broadband technology will be added to planes gradually over the following months, she said. There will be multiple aircrafts with the Wi-Fi service before the end of December.

Delta Air Lines said in August it would deploy the Aircell system on all the planes in its main fleet by summer 2009, which in the U.S. ends at about the end of August. American Airlines is offering a service on a limited-time trial, as is JetBlue.

The demand is there from passengers, especially business travelers, but whether more airlines commit to permanent commercial services will depend on price and performance, two longtime wireless analysts said on Thursday.

Key unanswered questions include how well the technical controls will work if someone tries to make VoIP calls or hog the Internet connection with movie downloads, and how the airlines will solve passengers' technical issues without an onboard IT staff, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"Users are going to have problems. It just happens," Gold said.

Any new source of revenue will be attractive to the cash-strapped airlines, said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. The economics of in-flight broadband have improved since the days of Connexion, with lighter on-board systems helping airlines meet tight budgets for weight, he said. But as a discount airline, Virgin may have a harder time than some at selling the service, Dulaney said.

"We've gotten to this point with the airlines because people didn't want to pay for a meal or anything," Dulaney said.

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