AirCell announced its first customer this morning: American Airlines: AirCell won the coveted air-to-ground spectrum auction a year ago that gave them the right to a few scanty megahertz of spectrum over which they can deploy about 1.5 Mbps of throughput in both directions to aircraft in flight. Data service via Wi-Fi will be available; cell calling and cell data isn't in the mix given that the FCC decided to continue an 850 MHz cell frequency ban, and the FAA doesn't have a plan or a decision on the "airworthiness" of cell phones. We're safe for the moment, as AirCell can suppress VoIP service, too. (Update: Paul Robichaux blogged his conversation with American Airlines' in-flight communication and technology manager, which includes a lot of detail on the airlines' voice plans--or, rather, lack thereof.)
Unlike Connexion by Boeing, which had to invent the wheel and had massive annual satellite transponder fees, AirCell is expanding its existing network of ground stations currently used for general (private) aviation. They can also use much smaller antennas and a lot of off-the-shelf transmission gear (they're using the cell data standard EVDO Rev. A, for instance). The antennas are mounted on the underside of planes, reducing drag and thus the cost per flight to airlines. This dramatically reduces cost of entry, cost to airlines, and ongoing operating expense.
American Airlines has committed to testing, AirCell says, not yet actual deployment. Fair enough, because no such commercial offering has ever existed. The tests will start in 2008 and cover the entire area of the US; AirCell is negotiating for its service to operate in Canada, Mexico, and Caribbean, but had no announcements today about progress there. Previous radio-telephony services, like Verizon AirFone, were granted operational permission across those countries based on the US licenses.
The company told me this morning that passengers will have access to some content at no cost through a Web portal, including AA.com and sites that affiliate themselves with AirCell. Passengers would be able to book cars and hotels, for instance, both through American Airlines site, and through affiliated rental and accommodation sites. In the future, the onboard servers could also store movies and other media content, the company said, although there's no plan for testing that in this initial deal.
Pricing hasn't been announced, but AirCell reiterated previous statements that service will be at a slight premium over what hotspot service costs on the ground. I would wager they will look at $15 or less for flights of four hours or more; $10 for shorter flights; and $5 an hour for pay-as-you-go. They might also choose to offer a single flat-rate for all flights for simplicity, where pay-as-you-go would make sense on short flights, and unlimited on longer flights.
I would also expect that at the time of the test launch, they will have partnerships in place with aggregators like iPass and Boingo. That could be tricky because both firms recently switched to or revealed unlimited use pricing plans. With Connexion by Boeing, having a Boingo or iPass account gave you $1 off the service, and allowed you to use your same login. With AirCell's offering, it's unclear what the pricing relationship would look like.