Skeptics wondered whether in-flight Internet would just be blue-sky thinking: I'm more in the optimistic camp--the plane is half-full, as it were--than skeptic, but I've wondered since December whether plans to get the Internet aloft were stalling. According to the key companies involved, delays have occurred, but all engines are on full throttle. Now I'll spare you more aircraft "jokes."
In preparation for a longer article on in-flight Internet, I've spoken to several firms recently, including Aircell and Row 44. Let me share a few choice tidbits of interest to those of us following this market closely.
- American Airlines is moving ahead on expansion. No details are available.
- Alaska Airlines has a 60-day test, but the firm's VP of marketing made it clear that the test is just a check on passenger interest, usage, and production readiness. The company is ready to go fleetwide, and assumes a positive pilot.
- Aircell will fully equip not just Virgin America and Delta by 3rd quarter 2009, but another airline as well.
- Aircell can't give out figures but usage is significant, number continuously growing, repeat customers about half of users.
- Row 44 has seen half the people on one test flight with free Internet use the Wi-Fi service. 20 percent is more common--for a test, unannounced service.
- Subscription pricing for Aircell is coming in the spring.
- With LTE cell data on the horizon, Aircell has its next-generation downlink planned, expecting 10s of Mbps.
- Plans are moving ahead for a Canadian air-to-ground service by 2010, with Aircell's regulatory and partnership deals proceeding. Air Canada already plans to use Aircell on U.S. legs, with service in place this year.
- Row 44 has European and trans-Atlantic expansion plans.
Aircell's executive vice president of airlines John Happ told me yesterday that the delay in Delta's rollout was partly coordination. Delta had originally planned to handle the Aircell Gogo service installation itself, but opted to hand that role to Aircell. Aircell has two intsallation lines putting its service in planes with an overnight turnaround, and will have two more lines in operation between this Sunday and the next few weeks.
Both Happ and Jack Blumenstein, Aircell's CEO, said that the target of during third quarter of 2009 for the full widebody fleet rollout of Delta remains on track. "We'll move on to, and toward later on in the year" with a firmer schedule about the Northwest mainline fleet, Blumenstein said.
While Delta and Aircell had planned to have more planes in the air sooner--75 by the end of 2008 at one point--this revised scheduled reflects the change in Aircell's installation role.
Virgin America's rollout continues apace, and Blumenstein said, surprisingly, that by third quarter, "We'll have at least one other airline fully deployed over that same time frame."
Aircell plans to start offering a proliferation of pricing plans soon, with overnight discounts, special event discounts, subscriptions, run-of-airline daypasses, and other bundles for regular or frequent users.
From Row 44's CEO, John Guidon, I learned that the company is poised for a fairly big expansion. Alaska Airlines was a natural customer because a lot of its routes are overseas and mountains, as well to, well, Alaska, which is remote.
Row 44's system can push about 4 Mbps of real network access to a plane, with a larger amount of streaming traffic.