The Web’s last unconquered frontier – the airplane – is about to be invaded yet again.
This spring, Aircell, a 16-year-old company that sells air to ground telecommunications equipment to airlines, will launch a broadband wireless service for twitchy airplane passengers who need their Internet fix at 40,000 feet.
Two years ago, Aircell, based in Itasca, Ill., and Louisville, Colo., paid $31 million to the federal government for a batch of air-to-ground spectrum that was originally used for in-flight seat-back phones –- an expensive service that passengers largely ignored.
Aircell has since built 92 EVDO cell sites across the United States and pointed them at the sky, where they will bring 3.1-megabit-per-second Internet access to airplanes traveling thousands of feet above the ground at hundreds of miles per hour. The company’s on-board technology will magnify that signal and split it into separate Wi-Fi streams, offering speeds equivalent to a home D.S.L. connection to any passenger who wants to log on with his or her wireless device.
Aircell will start the service, called GoGo, with American Airlines this spring and then expand it with Virgin America over the summer.
If GoGo gets off the ground, it will fulfill the long-held promise of bringing Internet access to airplane passengers. Boeing tried it, somewhat disastrously, earlier this decade with its Connexion in-flight satellite service. Boeing signed up carriers such as Lufthansa, Japan Airlines and Singapore Airlines but the effort was eventually undone by belt-tightening after 9/11. The aircraft maker had to write off $320 million on what was widely reported to be a $1 billion investment.
Jack Blumenstein, Aircell’s chief executive, said GoGo is different in several ways. Airplanes can be retrofitted with the technology overnight, and the in-flight servers and antennas weigh less than 50 pounds, considerably less than Boeing’s bulky satellite receivers. Broadband wireless technology is now faster overall as well, while the array of Wi-Fi equipped consumer devices — from iPhones to laptops — has blossomed.
GoGo’s pricing plans will vary, but access during a cross-country flight should cost around $13. GoGo will also serve up-on-demand television and films from on-board, TiVo-like servers.
Mr. Blumenstein expects other airlines to come on board quickly. “Passengers want freedom and the ability to get back in control of their life and be productive,” he said. “All the data suggests passengers will change planes if one airline offers it and another doesn’t. The airlines will fight to the death over a 1 percent market share shift,” he said.
Readers, please discuss. This is clearly inevitable. Is anyone bothered that the last environment for unwired thinking and old-media-reading is about to be tethered to the grid? I’m ambivalent. Of course, I’ll also be among the first to log on.
Did we mention Gogo was named by Igor? Right, that’s what is most important here.