American Airlines is teaming with Colorado-based communications provider AirCell in the launch of an onboard Wi-Fi system on transcontinental flights early next year. The high-flying broadband service is expected to give travelers the ability to check e-mail, surf the Web, access corporate intranets, and monitor the latest news through the use of any Wi-Fi enabled laptop, PDA, or smartphone.
Of course, Americans have heard all this before, only to be disappointed. Aircraft-maker Boeing promised to bring the Internet to the skies years ago, then shut down its Connexion by Boeing business because it was unable to attract customers from an airline industry mired in economic woes.
Still, IDC research director Rena Bhattacharyya said she thinks Wi-Fi stands a much better chance of flying next year because the airlines are feeling the pressure from passengers used to obtaining instant broadband gratification.
"A far greater number of people are accustomed to getting Internet access wherever they are now," Bhattacharyya explained. "And the desire is stronger than it was just a couple of years ago," she said.
The move to onboard Wi-Fi systems will certainly be welcome in the marketplace, Bhattacharyya said. "The question is whether the airlines will be able to get their pricing right," she added.
Although an official price has not yet been set for the in-flight service, AirCell executives have suggested to the media that, in theory at least, the service could be provided for as little as $10 per user on any transcontinental flight.
"To me that sounds pretty reasonable and inline with what casual Wi-Fi users are now paying," Bhattacharyya said. Moreover, business users are already accustomed "to buying a bundled service that their company pays for," as well as paying for "one-time access for under $15 per session."
It is not surprising that airborne Wi-Fi has suddenly become more affordable for the airlines, said IDC research manager Godfrey Chua.
"With respect to the wireless infrastructure, the pace of technological change has increased, and the cost per bit has gone down substantially from what it was just a few years back," Chua explained. "If we take a look at the traditional cellular system, in the last five years the cost of a GSM base station has come down by 50 percent."
Chua also noted that the amount of bandwidth that can be pushed over wireless frequencies is more substantial than what it used to be. "So the timing could be much better now than before."
AirCell's air-to-ground network will use a series of ground-based cellular towers to communicate with planes in flight. Three different antennas will be installed on the outside of each aircraft: two on the bottom and one on top.
American Airlines said it will be testing an AirCell prototype on a single transcontinental flight from New York to California beginning in January of 2008. If all goes well, then further testing will be conducted on 14 additional aircraft that fly transcontinental routes.
"We understand that broadband connectivity is important to our business customers and others who want to use their PDAs and laptops for real-time, in-flight broadband communications," said American Airlines executive vice president Dan Garton in a statement.