Domestic U.S. Flights to Get Wi-Fi... Eventually

By Eric Griffith

June 06, 2005

United has FAA approval for Wi-Fi on domestic flights, but Verizon Airfone has to win the spectrum to actually install it.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted permission to United Airlines and Verizon Airfone to build Wi-Fi networks into the airline's domestic planes for use by passengers while in the air.

The two companies report that they have "successfully demonstrated that the usage of 802.11 b/g wireless technology within the cabin does not affect the aircraft's operation."

The approval is currently limited to cabin use in the United B757-200 planes. The plan is for high-speed wireless service to be offered on all United aircraft eventually.

However, there's no set timeframe for when service will be offered. It is, in fact, dependent on an auction to be held by the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) of "Air-to-Ground" spectrum. That sale will determine what provider or providers can offer services.

Airfone plans to be that provider. While allowing for the possibility that it may not have the highest bid, company president Bill Pallone says, "We fully intend to win the auction. There's no backup plan."

Today's Airfone service uses a narrowband connection to the ground, which limits the number of simultaneous users. Pallone says the air-to-ground spectrum the FCC will be auctioning is key to getting successful Wi-Fi in the air.

This is unlike other in-flight Wi-Fi systems in the world that are currently operating with overseas airlines, which use satellite connections for backhaul: arguably the most well-known is Connexion by Boeing. In fact, United (along with Delta and American Airlines) was involved with the original Connexion Wi-Fi project, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and ensuing financial problems caused the domestic airlines to refocus their attention on basic services.

Pallone says the current debate on in-flight cell phone use is a separate topic, but that once those issues are resolved and pico-cells are authorized in planes, "We'll deploy them as soon as possible, to accommodate CDMA and GSM phones. Then you can bring any device [on the plane.]."

Verizon Airfone is a subsidiary of Verizon Communications . Airfone service is on all domestic United flights. They also offer JetConnect SMS Messaging service on United p.s. (premium service) flights that go coast-to-coast from New York's JFK to both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The phone service is also used by Continental, Delta, U.S. Airways, Air Canada and others. Airfone's current charges are $3.99 a minute with a $3.99 setup fee. No pricing has yet been set by Airfone for Wi-Fi, but Pallone says it will be comparable to prices found at hotels or frequent-flyer lounges at airports.

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