Carrier WiFi

Ready for Takeoff?

2:45 PM -- If I had told you a few years ago that it could soon be a commonplace thing to flip open your laptop, check your email, and make voice calls while cruising at 30,000 feet you might have laughed. Well, the technology is here now, but it's not clear how many airlines can -- or will -- be able to pay for it.

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

SmartGuy2 12/5/2012 | 3:52:26 AM
re: Ready for Takeoff? Now that internet access on airplanes may be going mainstream, wouldn't it be nice if you could open your laptop beyond the 80-dreegree limit in economy class? Even if you have an ultraportable, have you tried using its trackpad to move the cursor, with your elbows firmly against your body?

Yes, all the technologies for all sort of services are already here, but people usually follow the hype and forget about the practical limitations.

Will airlines increase leg and side room (get rid of a bunch of seats) so their customers can surf?

I recently flew to Europe with Lufthansa, which has the Boeing thing, but the price for internet surfing was not appealing at all. This would be another factor to consider.
freetoair 12/5/2012 | 3:52:25 AM
re: Ready for Takeoff? cellular calls worked great on 9/11 -- right?

seems like pretty much a 100% success rate, handovers, etc. why all the fuss. I am sure all the wireless guinesses on the board know how well cellular works at 30,000 feet?
joset01 12/5/2012 | 3:52:22 AM
re: Ready for Takeoff? I don't suppose that will ever be sanctioned by the FAA.

meshsecurity 12/5/2012 | 3:52:21 AM
re: Ready for Takeoff? Wondering if any of the other mesh companies responded to this?
joset01 12/5/2012 | 3:52:20 AM
re: Ready for Takeoff? Yeah, I hope to talk to Tropos soon. (Sorry Brad, call me.) I'll let you know what happens.

meshsecurity 12/5/2012 | 3:52:18 AM
re: Ready for Takeoff? Please do. I think there are other areas that need to be addressed by these companies. Standing by. Cisco and Belair respond yet?

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