Alaska Airlines Switches to Aircell for Wi-Fi

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Alaska Airlines plans to introduce the Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi service from Aircell on all its aircraft, even though it has already completed testing with another provider, Row 44.

The airline is working with Aircell to install the service on one Boeing 737-800 and will start deploying it across the fleet once it has received approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The rollout will begin with 737-800s serving long routes, and it should be completed fleetwide by the end of this year.

Alaska had begun a test of Row 44's system on one plane about a year ago and announced in April 2009 that it would start deploying Row 44's technology on more planes. It said the tests had been successful. But on Wednesday, the airline said it had chosen Gogo.

"With Aircell, we have the option to install the fleet faster, and the equipment is less expensive," said Chase Craig, manager of product development and market research. In addition, Aircell has experience from deploying more than 730 of its systems on planes already, he added.

Row 44 said it was "disappointed" it could not reach a "mutually agreeable business relationship" with Alaska Airlines.

"But based on information we learned during their successful passenger trial, we know passengers were extremely satisfied with our service, including coverage into Canada and the far reaches of the airline's namesake state," Row 44 CEO John Guidon was quoted as saying in a statement.

Gogo is available on all Virgin America and Air Tran flights, all Delta Airlines flights except on regional aircraft, and selected American Airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada flights, according to the company. Aircell also is working with US Airways, Continental Airlines and Delta's Northwest division on future commercial offerings.

Gogo will cost the same on Alaska as on other airlines, starting at US$4.95, depending on the passenger's device and the length of the flight.

In-flight Wi-Fi services need a shared wireless connection to the Internet on the ground. One reason Alaska had planned to go with Row 44 was that the Woodland Hills, California, company uses satellites for that backhaul link. Aircell uses a network of 3G mobile data towers on the ground, which would limit the airline's ability to offer Wi-Fi on flights to remote parts of Alaska and over the Pacific, such as Hawaii and some trips to and from the continental U.S. On Wednesday, Aircell said it would expand its 3G network to provide service on flights to and within Alaska.

Alaska's whole fleet will be equipped for Gogo, and the airline estimates it will be able to offer the service on about 70 percent of its flights. The additional infrastructure will be designed to stretch from Fairbanks, in central Alaska, through Anchorage and across southeastern Alaska, Craig said. Service over Canada will depend on Aircell's deals with Canadian airlines, he said.

While Aircell has gained a customer, Row 44 now has just one major U.S. airline, Southwest, lined up to use its service. Southwest announced earlier this month that it had tested Row 44's equipment successfully and started ordering it, and would start deploying the gear in the second quarter at the rate of about 15 planes per month. Row 44's satellite network covers the continental U.S., Canada and Alaska, and by the middle of this year it will expand to support trans-Atlantic travel and flights in Europe. Norwegian Air Shuttle is expected to start offering the service then. Row 44 expects to have global coverage by the end of 2012, the company said earlier this month.

All major U.S. airlines will eventually offer Wi-Fi, but the key for them is making the right business deal, said analyst Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group.

"Wi-Fi access in the air is going to become the norm. ... It's not a technology problem, it's an economic problem," Mathias said.

Ultimately, Internet connectivity will be a critical amenity for the airlines to pull in business travelers, he said.

"We cannot tolerate being out of touch, flying across the country," Mathias said.

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