Two articles today focus on the future of in-flight calling, Internet access: The Denver Business Journal covers local firm AirCell, the CEO of which, Jack Blumenstein. states that AirCell could become a billion-dollar company with its license to print money--er, to offer high-speed in-flight Internet access and related services. AirCell is based near Denver, and Blumenstein restated the company's expectation that it would have a carrier operating with its service by late 2007. I had heard that slipped into 2008, so this might indicate more optimism.
The billion-dollar figure isn't misplaced. If the company succeeds in signing up most of the major domestic airlines, and is able to cover the entire Western hemisphere (which is likely), they have the numbers to make it work. Unlike Connexion, they have no middleman to collect a fee for data transit, and they have a much cheaper antenna and ground station package with the spectrum they purchased.
There are roughly 11m flights and 660m passengers (each itinerary) flying in a 12-month period in the US, according to the US Department of Transportation. AirCell need only equip several thousand full-sized planes to put their service in front of a majority of people making those 660m trips. Add to that Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and airline-focused services that AirCell will deliver, and the revenue picture takes shape.
In the article, I'm quoted about in-flight entertainment, but it's a little opaque what I meant. In every industry I speak to now, I hear the same interest in intra-network media servers, whether it's coffee shops, railroad Internet operators, or in-flight broadband. AirCell may only have 1.5 Mbps to and from the ground (with today's technology), but they have 20 to 30 Mbps of throughput within the plane. I expect there's a high level of to-the-laptop or to-the-handheld (phone or PDA) entertainment that could be easily delivered at a reasonable price.
The Orlando Sentinel has an article today focusing mostly on the use of cell phones during flights. As I discovered in my research for an Economist piece that ran last month, U.S. carriers either don't want to talk about cell phones or say, "no, no, no!" Wi-Fi, however, produces a more positive response.
The article overstates the conclusions of the Carnegie-Mellon study, by the way, which was conducted under the auspices of a private research group that advises the FCC on technical matters, the RTSA. The RTSA will likely issue testing guidance later this year on how, specifically, to determine whether cell phones and other intentional and unintentional emitters interact with a broad range of avionics gear.