On the hot seat

Spreading Wi-Fi across the friendly skies

(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
March 8, 2009
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Airline passengers will soon be checking their e-mail at 30,000 feet. United, American, Virgin America, and Delta airlines all are installing Wi-Fi Internet service on their planes, using technology from Chicago-based Aircell LLC. Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray spoke with Aircell chief executive Jack Blumenstein about bringing cyberspace to the stratosphere.

How do you get Internet service onto an airplane?
There's not a lot of magic about that. Inside the skin of the aircraft, any device that has a Wi-Fi chip will operate just as it does on the ground. The black magic is how do you make that come down to the ground from 35,000 feet at 600 miles per hour. We went to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) about four years ago and said, look, we can do broadband to the ground if you can take the spectrum that was used for the old seat-back phones that used to be on airplanes. In the summer of '06, they held an auction to grant an exclusive license to use that spectrum for provision of broadband services to aircraft, and we were the winners of that auction.

One of the biggest airlines, Southwest, is testing a different kind of Wi-Fi network that connects to the Internet via satellite.
They are the only domestic airline that has gone that way. We're up to seven airlines. Three of them are out flying around today. Our network's up and operating, and Southwest has now begun its trial on a single aircraft. Aircell has been in satellite communications to business jets for almost 20 years. We looked at all the technologies and concluded that the only way you can do this cost effectively across many airlines is to do it direct air-to-ground. From our view, the market has really spoken. By the end of this year, we'll have well over a thousand commercial aircraft. We'll be fully deployed on at least three airlines, so on virtually every flight you're on, you'll have Wi-Fi available.

Has the global financial crisis slowed the deployment of Wi-Fi on planes?
Interestingly enough, it really hasn't. Ironically, the airlines entered this recession in better shape than almost they ever have. They've already leaned down, they have a much lower cost structure, and they will use price to try to fill seats. We want the airlines to put fannies in those seats, so they'll have a chance to use our system.

Could people use your in-flight Wi-Fi as a Voice-Over-Internet Protocol telephone?
You could use a VoIP handset. In fact, we have VoIP handsets on the plane that are used by the cockpit crew and cabin crew for voice communications to their operations center.

But would passengers be allowed to use VoIP phones?
We have seven airlines that we've signed up. Three of those are launched - American, Delta, and Virgin America. All three of those airlines have elected to ask us to block VoIP calls. There's a social issue. People don't want to have people talking around them on their cellphones. The nightmare of 20 people on the plane shouting, 'Can you hear me now,' all the way from Boston to LA . . . a lot of people have taken positions saying we don't want that. So we block it.

Because your service connects to Internet sites on the ground, will it only be available on domestic flights?
Canada and Mexico are going through the same process of redoing those licenses for broadband, and we're working with companies that will acquire those licenses, construct their part of the network and then tie them in with us. So you'll have a seamless air-to-ground network over Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

So Aircell will only do business in North America?
There are a couple of other areas that lend themselves to the same model. The Indian subcontinent, China, would be great places to do air-to-ground. In Europe, the radio spectrum is so cluttered and the coordination between countries has been so bad, you can't do it in Europe. South America, probably not enough density of air traffic to matter. What I see happening over time, is you're going to have islands of high-density air-to-ground, which is the cheapest highest capability, and then you're going to have long-haul over-ocean planes that will be using a form of satellite.

But Aircell won't offer satellite Internet service.
Actually, we will be in that business . . . We're actually working with one of the major satellite providers to see if we can come up with a cost-effective way.

So we'll be online anytime, anywhere, on any plane. There's no escape.
There is. It's called the off button.

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