Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Fond Falcon Memories: A Look Back at AirCell's First Press Demo and Latest Achievement

(Amended to include comment from American)
Excitement is building in the world of onboard connectivity after American Airlines today announced it has completed installation of AirCell’s air-to-ground (ATG)-based broadband solution on the first of 15 transcontinental Boeing 767-200s set to trial the system.

The installation is a real achievement for Colorado-based AirCell, which first proved its technology to a group of journalists (including myself) on September 13, 2005. It was a day I’ll never forget. The flight demonstration was conducted on board a specially-equipped Falcon 2000 business jet at an altitude of about 11,000ft (3,400m) near Kansas City, Missouri. That's all of us standing in front of the jet BEFORE the flight. Things got rather bumpy on the ride and I felt certain I would toss my biscuits, as they say. AirCell execs were kind enough to give me a bag (clear and plastic) should I come face-to-face with my lunch. They also brought that plane down – THANK YOU AGAIN!

More to the point, however, AirCell in 2005 demonstrated how its system supports WiFi over a common air-to-ground pipe, providing access to voice, email, Internet and corporate virtual private networks, or VPNs (as well as mobile phones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications).

Today, American has equipped its first 767 with the solution, and is eyeing a fleet-wide equipage. The carrier previously said it expects the trial to get underway this quarter. It is now looking at offering the service on those 15 767s by the end of the second quarter, an American spokesman says.

The intention at American is to offer Internet to passengers with a couple of caveats. "AirCell is going to block VOIP and also very high bandwidth utilisation applications so that there is a DSL-like experience across the customer base," American manager of in-flight communications and technology Doug Backelin recently told me.

Despite that, this offering looks pretty damn cool (and you could hear me blabbing about it last Friday on New York Public Radio's "Sound Check" show here http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/episodes/2008/01/18/segments/92108 )

Customers in all classes of service will be able to access the broadband signal using their own WiFi enabled devices for a fee. American says passengers will get the following:

1) Complimentary access to AA.com including services such as gates and times, fares and AAdvantage information;
2) Access to the Wall Street Journal Digest Edition,
3) Compatibility with VPNs that provide access to corporate intranets and email accounts;
4) And seamless coverage over the continental US above 10,000 feet.

"Access to broadband Internet access on our flights will be a fee-based service throughout the entire aircraft. AirCell will set the price, though specific pricing plans are still in development," says an American spokeswoman.

"Pricing will be similar to what consumers pay on the ground at a WiFi hot spot. At launch, the service will be offered only on longer routes (above 3 hours in duration) and will be priced at $12.95. In the future, the service on more typical length flights can be expected to be around the $10 mark."

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