2008: The Year of In-Flight Wi-Fi?

By Ed Sutherland

December 18, 2007

In-flight Internet access, largely abandoned after Boeing lost a reported $1 billion on its failed Connexion service, is making a comeback.

Last year, Boeing finally pulled the plug on its ill-fated six-year, billion-dollar odyssey to bring Wi-Fi to the friendly skies. As we turn the corner into 2008, a few hardy newcomers have decided that the market and the technology have caught up with one another enough to make in-flight Internet a realistic venture. Will 2008 be the year of in-flight Wi-Fi?

In-flight selections

Last week, jetBlue’s “BetaBlue,” an Airbus A320, gave travelers a taste of what’s possible with in-flight Internet service—but only a taste. Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research, rode the initial transcontinental test flight and found the e-mail, SMS, and IM-only service, while free, was not what travelers were looking for. 

“It’s not what passengers want—they want the whole thing,” he said.

Boeing Connexion, the first big attempt at offering in-flight Internet, offered passengers access through satellite links. Connexion had service on several international flights with carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Lufthansa, and El Al Israel Airlines. The service never took off in the U.S, however. Now, a trio of companies is hoping to succeed where Boeing failed. 

jetBlue uses LiveTV’s Kiteline service, which provides limited e-mail, IM, and SMS service using cell-based ground connections in the 1MHz Air-to-Ground spectrum. LiveTV, a subsidiary of jetBlue, also uses satellite technology to provide in-flight entertainment, including live TV and XM Radio. Reviewers found the free in-flight Internet features on BetaBlue suffered from the same types of outages that frustrate cell phone users. In a nod to the problems, jetBlue founder David Neeleman told reporters the glitches are why the airline isn’t charging.

Aircell is another company hoping to be at the forefront of in-flight Internet. The Itasca, Illinois-based company uses cellular connections and has signed American Airlines (AA) and Virgin US. AA will offer 802.11a/b/g connection to passengers flying its Boeing 767-200 and expects to go live in the spring. Virgin’s rollout is scheduled for 2008, but the specific timeline has not been announced.

Row 44 takes a different tack. Rather than using ground-based cellular connections, the Westlake, California-based Row 44 is leveraging its relationship to Hughes and its satellites. Unlike air-to-ground cellular, the Row 44 system will allow airlines to offer online connections outside the U.S. and over oceans. Alaska Airlines will test the system and plans to expand the service to all its planes, depending on the outcome of the trial run.

Passengers will still need to wait until they are airborne before sending e-mail or checking the Web—at least in the U.S.

Only Virgin US has said that it would allow Internet calling, raising the specter of a planeful of people chatting away on Skype or another VoIP service.

Nickel and dimed

According to Harteveldt, for airlines, there is no choice but to offer in-flight Internet. The only question will be how much—if anything—to charge. Harteveldt said $10 seems to be the sweet spot for fee-based in-air Internet. However, he warns against alienating consumers by adding yet more costs to their air travel experience.

“Over time airlines have no choice but to offer it free,” he said. “By the end of 2008, you’ll have two types of airlines—those that offer the Internet and those that wonder where their passengers went,” predicted Harteveldt. Such a prediction is bold, given that as we close out 2007 only one airline offers service—on only one of its airplanes—and that service is spotty, limited, and provided only to consumers of certain brands (RIM, Yahoo!). But as fans of the Boston Red Sox or Jennifer Hudson will attest, given a year, anything can happen.

Ed Sutherland is a veteran journalist, reporting on Wi-Fi events since the introduction of 802.11b for Wi-Fi Planet and other publications.

Originally published on .

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