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Carrier WiFi

Come WiFly With Me

A new ruling from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could open the way for the widespread use of wireless LAN devices and, eventually, cellphones in the friendly skies.

But don't hold your breath, getting unstrung doesn't seem to be a top priority for U.S. airlines yet.

The FCC plans to auction off 3 MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band, which can its says can be used to provide "voice, broadband, data, Internet" services. The current operator Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) has been granted a five-year license to continue offering its AirFone in-flight call service over 1 MHz of spectrum.

The ruling means that U.S. airlines could potentially operate wireless LAN services on domestic flights, by installing a radio node on the plane that can make the ground-to-air connection, as well as 802.11 access points that allow laptop-toting passengers to tap into the wireless signal.

Boeing subsidiary Connexion is already working with a number of international airlines to offer a similar service, using satellite for the wireless connection to the plane (see When Will WLAN Get Its Wings? and WLAN Takes to the Skies). Rival plane maker Airbus S.A.S. is also forming a division to work on in-flight broadband services.

The FCC ruling has caused some wireless LAN gear vendors to prick up their ears.

Colubris Networks Inc. is already supplying Connexion with ruggedized 802.11 kit for its service (see Colubris, Miltope WiFi Planes). "We are the sole supplier to Connexion by Boeing," claims a Colubris spokesman. "Boeing is the first -- and so far only -- company deploying wireless products."

Meanwhile, switch startup Trapeze Networks Inc. says it is working with a yet unnamed customer that is looking at installing its mini-switch on planes.

"The customer plans on two APs per plane and is interested in the MXR-2 because it offloads a lot of the control traffic for authentication -- something that is nice when the downlink to the ground station has limited bandwidth," a company spokeswoman writes in an email reply to questions.

But, unlike some of their international counterparts, installing WiFi on planes doesn't seem to be a top priority for some domestic airlines.

A spokesman for JetBlue Airways says the operator has had some "informal talks" with vendors about installing WiFi on planes, but has "no immmediate plans" to do so.

"We want to step and see what this means for us," says the spokesman, who says the airline is currently concentrating on launching satellite radio on its fleet next year.

Continental Airlines Inc. wants to figure out a "value-add" service that passengers would be happy to pay for:

"We frankly haven't yet decided what we would offer and where," writes Rahsaan Johnson, public relations manager at Continental. "We haven't reached a point where customer feedback is significant enough for us to have made a decision."

The cost of installation is a big issue, it can cost $50,000 to install all of the relevant equipment on a jetliner.

Craig Mathias, analyst at Farpoint Group is hoping that this won't mean the operators feel the need to make in-sky WiFi an overly expensive option.

"The big problem of course is how much the airlines charge." he says.

He thinks that $20 or $30 a flight could be a reasonable initial rate for in-flight broadband.

"To tell you the truth, I would probably pay that much to have Internet access on a long flight," says Mathias [ed note: cheapskate!].

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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