Ready for Takeoff?
Over the last week a couple of events have shown that wireless technology is just about ready to get its wings. First, the much-touted Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction of air-to-ground spectrum was completed after 144 rounds of bidding. The eventual winners were Aircell Inc. and JetBlue. The FCC says that the spectrum can be used to provide broadband services onboard the plane but isn't yet loosening its restrictions on inflight cell phone calls. (See JetBlue, AirCell Win Some Airtime.)
The auctions mean that at least some flights in the U.S. should eventually be able to offer users the opportunity to access email and Internet -- and possibly VOIP calls -- while on the wing. This will be an undoubted boon for the business traveler if the price is right.
Outside of the U.S., airlines such as Lufthansa have offered these services on various international flights for a little while now. The operator charges between $20 and $30 for the service depending on the length of the flight.
The big questions concern the timing and the pricing of these services in the U.S. There's lots of speculation about the services JetBlue will offer and what it will charge for them. Some are hoping for free WiFi on planes even though the JetBlue consortium spent nearly $7 million on the 1-MHz license. AirCell spent $31.3 million on its 3-MHz chunk of the sky. It's hoping to start working with carriers on WiFi services in 2007.
Pricing will be absolutely key to driving the take-up of inflight WiFi services. The current holder of the ground-to-air spectrum -- Verizon, which will vacate the bandwidth by 2010 -- used it to offer a seat-back phone service that I have never seen anyone use. Largely because it cost $5 a minute.
With the profusion of free WiFi access available today, there will be an expectation among the punters that any service should be free or at least cheap. Otherwise it becomes hard to justify using it. Why not wait until you land and grab a signal at your airport or hotel? On the other hand, airlines will want to recoup the millions it will cost to outfit their fleet with WiFi. Especially as their other costs, such as fuel, continue to skyrocket.
And WiFi won't be the only radio technology competing for the sky jockey's dollars. Boeing and FedEx have been working on the second big airborne wireless event this week. The pair are testing the safety of active RFID tags (they're the ones that can broadcast independently of a reader) inflight. (See I'm RFID, Fly Me.)
The idea being that RFID sensors could deliver more information on the state of the aircraft to air and ground crews, such as how much stress the plane had suffered after a rough landing.
Both WiFi services and improved data about the health of a plane sound like worthy candidates for future implementation on aircraft. Aside from JetBlue, however, I wonder how many airlines in the U.S. have that kind of money to kick around.
— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung