United adds Internet: United Airlines becomes the fifth airline to sign up for in-flight Internet service with Aircell, a company that offers ground-to-air broadband service to planes. United will start a pilot program in the second half of 2009 with 13 of its Boeing 757 aircraft in its p.s. airline operation between LAX and JFK and SFO and JFK.
American Airlines has been offering the service, under Aircell's Gogo brand, on 15 cross-country 757-200s since September 2008, Virgin American equipped one plane in December 2008, and Delta Airlines has been offering service on about 10 planes since late 2008. American has made no future commitment; Virgin has said their small fleet would be fully Wi-Fi enabled by mid-2009; and Delta plans to put service on its entire domestic fleet of over 300 planes.
For Aircell, this isn't yet a vindication of their decade-long effort to put broadband into commercial aircraft. The company worked for years to push low-use narrowband radiotelephone service (eventually, only offered by Verizon Airfone) off the airwaves in favor of broadband, and then changed its corporate structure to obtain the capital to win an important auction in 2006.
With American, Delta (with Northwest thrown in), and United on board among the big carriers, and their most significant competitor Row 44 without a production aircraft or public test with their partners Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines, Aircell is on top of the heap. But recall that Delta is the only large carrier committed to fleet-wide deployment, and that hasn't happened yet. American is moving into the 5th month of a test, and United isn't starting up service for at least six months, and then only on 13 aircraft. So much remains to be seen.
I've used the service on Virgin America, during the press event, and expected that 4 or 5 of Virgin's planes would be ready to go by now based on their public statements. That hasn't happened yet. Still, the service works quite well, and all reports are that for the right customer, the price is right. Update: Virgin's press spokesperson said that 4 planes now have Wi-Fi turned on, which is about right on scheduled. Funny; they're not showing multiple planes or flights at their Wi-Fi tracker.
United will offer Gogo service for $12.95 per flight. Other airlines have tiered service based on flight duration: $9.95 for flights of 3 or fewer hours; $12.95 for longer flights. However, United will only be flying with Internet service on routes of 5 or more hours.
The service uses a cellular backhaul technology to ground stations—EVDO Rev. A—that allows it to peak over 2 Mbps downstream (from the Internet to the plane) and nearly 1 Mbps upstream (from passengers to the Internet).
(Air Canada is the among the first airlines to sign up for Gogo; they will launch service for U.S. flyover flights only initially, as Aircell doesn't yet have Canada regulatory approval. Their launch plans haven't yet been announced.)