Wi-Fi: Coming soon on board U.S. airplanes

AirCell says it'll use its wireless spectrum to offer in-flight broadband. Will planes be filled with travelers yakking with VoIP?

Air travelers starved for in-flight Internet access may soon find solace, thanks to a Colorado company that wants to offer Wi-fi service aloft.

AirCell said Monday that it plans to use a newly acquired radio spectrum license to offer "affordable" broadband service aboard commercial airplanes. Formed in 1991, the company already sells satellite-based voice and data services to the general aviation sector, primarily the corporate jet set.

In the style of cafe hot spots, AirCell's idea would let passengers link up any computer or handheld using the 802.11b or 802.11g wireless standards while in the air. The network, which the privately held company hopes to begin testing and deploying on commercial aircraft next year, would work by channeling communications from at least one miniature cell site--called a "picocell"--on the plane to special cell sites on the ground.

AirCell's plan would not conflict with a federal ban on in-flight cell phone use because the proposed network operates at a different frequency than that which could pose interference threats to aircraft navigational systems, according to a Federal Communications Commission official.

But offering Wi-fi service also means that air travelers could use voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones and applications like Skype to make voice calls--a development sure to vex seatmates.

Frontier Airlines, which ranks 11th or 12th in size among carriers, is definitely considering a Wi-Fi network for its next phase of in-flight entertainment, but it would likely block VoIP conversations and continue to prohibit cell phone calls, said company spokesman Joe Hodas.

"Unless we hear strongly otherwise from our passengers, our stand is we don't think it has a place right now in our cabin," he said. "We're running pretty full planes...If you're not sitting next to two people, you're sitting next to at least one person, and it just would be a difficult experience."

Responding to news that the FCC was considering relaxing the cell phone ban, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, quipped in a speech earlier this year: "It would be five hours of perfect hell from Dulles to Los Angeles--a rising, deafening chorus of 'Can you hear me now?' in multiple languages."

AirCell, for its part, doesn't have any takers yet. It plans first to cover planes traversing the continental United States and later expand the network to the rest of North America.

The company said it will be able to keep traditionally high installation and operating costs low by using "commercially available" technology and a direct air-to-ground link, rather the than bulky, expensive satellites used by some existing in-flight communications systems.

"We want to encourage wide adoption," AirCell CEO Jack Blumenstein said in a telephone interview Monday.

Precisely how much the company will charge consumers remains unclear. Blumenstein said the company would aim for a price "well below what one has seen historically in these premium aviation services" in hopes of luring not only business travelers but also the general public.

Prices for Boeing's Connexion system, which bills itself as the first-ever recipient of a Federal Aviation Administration certificate for in-flight broadband, range from $9.95 for one hour of access to $26.95 for an entire flight. Those satellite-dependent offerings so far are available only on longer international flights operated by carriers such as Lufthansa German Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines System and Singapore Air.

US Airways, which ranks fifth among the nation's largest airlines, said it would also support the idea of a wireless network on its planes in the long term but would first need to ensure "we can find a way to make it cost-effective and add value to our service without driving up our costs or ticket costs for passengers," said spokesman Morgan Durrant.

FCC's turbulent auction
News of AirCell's Wi-fi plans follows an FCC announcement that the company and JetBlue Airways emerged as the top bidders in an auction of two wireless bands that concluded Friday. A JetBlue representative declined to provide details on the airline's proposal at the time. Both bids remain subject to final approval by the FCC.

Under the license, AirCell would launch its service in the 800MHz spectrum currently occupied by Verizon's Airfone service, which permits air-to-ground telephone service but never proved wildly popular because of its high price tag. Once favored to win the auction, Verizon dropped out of the running early. Its license expires in 2010, but it must relinquish its part of the spectrum within two years of when AirCell receives its own license.

The idea of in-flight Internet use is hardly new, although its adoption hit snags during the airline industry's post-Sept. 11 financial struggles. But like any new in-flight add-ons, AirCell's proposed network would also have to earn the FAA's stamp of approval before going live. Any airline wishing to install the system would have to demonstrate to the FAA that it wouldn't interfere with the aircraft's communications or navigational systems.

"They would have to show us what kind of tests they ran; they would have to show us the test results; and it would have to be specific for each model and series of aircraft that they wanted to allow use on," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

AirCell ran several tests of the planned network on a high-end business jet last fall and claims it is capable of delivering Internet access at 600 mile-per-hour speeds and 40,000-feet altitudes. Users on that "flying prototype" were able to send and receive e-mail, surf the Web, and even watch live video feeds of the confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, CEO Blumenstein said.

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