Wi-Fi Flying High


A couple years ago, the question of how airlines were going to provide broadband service to travelers was, well, up in the air. The issue has largely been settled, with Wi-Fi beating out cellular and one company -- Aircell -- emerging as the big player in the market.


Delta Airlines announced this week that it will use Aircell technology on its 330-aircraft domestic fleet. The gear will enable travelers to gain Wi-Fi access through laptops, smartphones and PDAs. The rollout will occur in two phases -- initially on its 133 MD88/90 craft and subsequently on the rest of its domestic fleet. Aircell's GoGo service uses ground-based towers, making it impossible to offer on overseas flights.


In January, American Airlines began installation of Aircell technology. The plan was to use this year to test Internet broadband on its 15 Boeing 767-200 craft that fly transcontinental routes. The initial release said that the plans would offer Internet access, virtual private networks (VPN) access and e-mail. VoIP services were not part of the rollout, the company said. Also in January, Continental said it would use television and Wi-Fi services from LiveTV, a unit of JetBlue


Aircell is looking ahead. Last month, the company said it is opting for LTE as the infrastructure for its 4G network. The company now delivers more than 12 Megabit per second (Mbps) of bandwidth to planes using the Code Division Multiple Access Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) Rev. A protocol. The story says that it will deliver data rates of 22.7 Mbps by the end of next year and, using LTE, 300 Mbps by the beginning of 2011.


While airborne Wi-Fi continues to move forward, cellular communications seems to be experiencing a departure delay that may lead to a cancellation. Last week, PC World reported on a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would make the ban on cell calls permanent passing the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee. Judging from the name of the bill, the driver doesn't seem to be the safety concerns. The nascent legislation is called the Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace (HANG UP) Act. This Phone Boy blog outlines the objections to cell phones on planes. The one thing that cellular and VoIP have in common is the annoyance factor. The Aircell/Delta announcements makes no mention of voice services, and it will be interesting to see how Aircell, LiveTV and other providers approach the subject -- and if Congress moves to includes VoIP in the HANG UP legislation.