Check E-mail and Surf the Web—at 35,000 Feet

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It used to be that stepping onto an airplane meant losing hours of precious e-mail time — legally mandated offline time.

Not anymore.

American Airlines and newly-launched Virgin America have both announced plans to offer in-flight broadband access to passengers next year, provided by AirCell, a Louisville, Col.-based airline communications firm.

The on-board Wi-Fi, which is expected to launch on American Airlines transcontinental flights in March and all Virgin America flights soon after, will enable passengers to send e-mail and surf the Web using their laptops and PDAs. Virgin America will also offer the service through its in-flight entertainment system.

"It will feel like you're in an office or home environment with cable or DSL," in terms of connection speed, said Fran Phillips, senior vice president of Airline Solutions at AirCell.

The price for passengers has yet to be determined, although Phillips said it should be around $10. "We have always wanted it to be very affordable," Phillips said. "We have said it will be similar to what you pay on the ground for when you go to a hotspot."

Initially, AirCell's services will only be available in the continental United States, although there are plans to expand to Canada and Mexico. Transoceanic flights are not yet an option because AirCell operates an air-to-ground network, using cell towers to transmit signals. AirCell won the exclusive rights to operate air-to-ground broadband in the United States from the Federal Communications Commission in 2006.

Although American and Virgin America are the first, AirCell is in the advanced stages of negotiations with several other airlines, according to Phillips. "We've had quite a bit of interest," Phillips said.

Despite its FCC exclusive, AirCell does not have a monopoly on in-flight Internet. Alaska Airlines is set to launch a similar service next spring using Row 44, a Westlake Village, Calif.-based airline Internet, although with a few key differences.

Instead of an air-to-ground network, Row 44's system utilizes broadband giant Hughes Network Systems' satellites to provide aircraft with high-speed wireless Internet. As a result, after an initial test run, Alaska Airlines will offer Wi-Fi access on all its flights in North America, from Alaska to Mexico.

Those that remember Boeing's failed Connexion broadband service might recall its satellite system was too costly and cumbersome to be profitable. Row 44 has not made the same mistakes, according to company president Gregg Fialcowitz.

"Our system weighs significantly less," Fialcowitz said. That makes it ideal for single-aisle planes as well as larger aircraft, he added.

Row 44's Wi-Fi is also faster, operating at an average of 30 Mbps versus Connexion's 5 Mbps, Fialcowitz said. "By having a much more efficient bandwidth, that allows us to have a cheaper cost per bit and therefore a cheaper cost for the customer," said Fialcowitz.

The partnership with Hughes doesn't hurt. "We have access to a multi-billion dollar infrastructure," Fialcowitz said.

Fialcowitz said passengers can expect to pay $8 for a laptop and $6 for a PDA when using Row 44's Wi-Fi on a domestic flight. The rates will double when flying internationally. Row 44 plans to expand its services to Europe and transoceanic flights by the end of 2008, Fialcowitz said.

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