PC World explains How Four Airlines Plan to Connect Fliers to the Web in light of the Friday announcement that JetBlue is teaming up with Research in Motion and Yahoo to test free e-mail and instant messaging on its flights. JetBlue’s in-flight telecom company, LiveTV is providing only a 1 MHz chunk of spectrum in the 800 MHz band which doesn’t provide enough bandwidth for voice or web surfing.
Aircell will use just 100 cell towers that point skyward to cover the continental U.S. They use a 3-MHz chunk in the 800 MHz band with competitor LiveTV owning a smaller 1 MHz chunk, using similar infrastructure. LiveTV plans WiFi service (but no voice) while Row 44 uses Hughes satellites and can provide voice and data services outside the borders of the United States.
In-flight broadband appears to be taking off in at least four major airlines:
Plans a nation-wide PlaneFi service using LiveTV, a wholly owned subsidiary of JetBlue that won rights to 1 MHz of the 800-MHz spectrum last year. They’re currently trialling free e-mail and instant-messaging on one Airbus A320. Wi-Fi connects user devices (no voice). If the trial goes well, JetBlue is expected to expand the service next year.
Aircell won the rights to 3-MHz on the 800-MHz spectrum to deliver broadband to airlines from terrestrial towers. Passengers connect via Wi-Fi inside planes. AA began testing the service on its fleet of Boeing 767-200 aircraft this August with the goal is to provide broadband service to all passengers in 2008.
Row 44 is providing Ku band transponders with downlink speeds of 81Mbps and uplink speeds of 1.6 Mbps. Passengers get a Wi-Fi connection for Internet, e-mail, VPNs, and stored in-flight entertainment for $10 for up to two hours, $15 for 2-5hr and $20 for more than 5hr. If the airline chooses, the link can also be used to support VoIP from dual-mode phones. Row 44 leases Ku-band satellite transponders from several operators, but is managed through HughesNet. Alaska hopes to have Wi-Fi connections on all 144 of its planes up and running by spring 2008 and more than 100 channels of live television.
Virgin America will be the second major U.S. airline to employ Aircell for Wi-Fi enabled devices. Additionally, the airline’s Red Inflight Entertainment network will allow customers to use a wide variety of instant messaging services on their seatbacks, including MSN messenger, Google talk, Yahoo! messenger, Skype and AIM. The company hopes to have its all of its planes connected “sometime in 2008.”
The FCC decided in 2004 to reallocate the four-MHz-wide, 800MHz Air-To-Ground (ATG) band for broadband services. The spectrum was largely bought by Aircell and LiveTV. ATG services will be limited to North America, but costs per megabyte promise to be lower than any other option available to US domestic airlines. Throughput to the aircraft should be in the 1Mbps range or greater.
Benefits of 800MHz ATG broadband system include low service costs and lower capital expenditures when compared to both L and Ku-band satellite systems. Drawbacks are limited service area (North America only).
Cellular femtocells can create a “cellular hotspot” inside of an aircraft cabin. But challenges result from masking the terrestrial network from phones in the cabin, so that the existing (terrestrial) networks are not interfered with. RF management techniques are used to shield the aircraft interior from outside signal.
Connexion by Boeing, a joint wireless between Boeing, American, Delta, and United, folded in 2006 after onboard equipment proved too expensive and heavy. The $30 fee for access was too pricey for many passengers.
OnAir, formed in 2005, is owned by an airline-owned provider of IT solutions and Airbus. It uses Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service (above), enabling WiFi access as well as GSM mobile phones that support international roaming.
SwiftBroadband uses the narrow spot-beams of the Inmarsat-4 satellites. Initially accessible
over the Indian and Atlantic Ocean regions, it will be available globally, except the extreme polar regions, following the successful launch of the third I-4 satellite. SwiftBroadband became operational this October and is available through distribution partners MVS, OnAir, Stratos and Vizada. The third Inmarsat-4 satellite, covering the Pacific, is scheduled to launch in March-April 2008 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Related DailyWireless stories include; Lufthansa & AA Trying WiFi — Again, Inflight Phones Banned by FAA?, AirCell on Virgin by 2008, Wireless Voice on Airplanes? Yes & No, AirCell Demos Inflight WiFi, Aircell for Planes, FCC Rules on Airplane Cellular, Connexion On Again?, Dis Connexion, Connexion Dying, AirFone Dead, Airplane Internet Auction Over, Airplane Wireless Auction (Virtually) Over, AirCell Demos Inflight WiFi and Connexion Press Junket.