In-flight broadband inches skyward

Two in-flight data service providers are gearing up for services in the U.S.

One provider's planned in-flight Wi-Fi and voice services may arrive a bit later than expected, but US business users should keep their eyes open for possible good news, too: competition.

AC BidCo won a US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction earlier this year for 3MHz of radio spectrum to be used for in-flight communications services. The company's affiliate, AirCell, said last week its offer of Wi-Fi hotspots and other services on airliners should get off the ground commercially in early 2008. That's later than the forecast it gave in June, when it said commercial service would go live in 2007.

AirCell is working to complete the FCC licensing process and expects to get its license, for which it bid $US31.3 million, in the next 30 days, according to a company statement. The company changed its forecast just to give it more breathing room and might still go live in late 2007, director of marketing, Tom Myers, said.

Despite a brave effort by Boeing's Connexion by Boeing unit, which said last month it would shut down after failing to attract enough users, personal in-flight communication has had a bumpy ride. For more than 20 years, Verizon Communications offered its Airfone service, which uses wired phones in seatbacks, but that expensive service wasn't widely used and last month was discontinued on airlines. In 2004, the FCC gave Verizon a non-renewable five-year license and moved to auction off the 4MHz radio spectrum that had been used for Airfone's air-to-ground links.

AC BidCo got 3MHz of the spectrum, while JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV got 1MHz. The companies expect other North American countries to make similar spectrum changes in the next few years that will allow them to expand across the continent.

AirCell planned to set up 802.11b/g access points in planes for Internet access that would look to passengers like DSL broadband, Myers said. They could even make VoIP calls if an airline allowed it, though AirCell could shut down that capability at an airline's request.

The company will use EV-DO third-generation mobile technology to link the plane to base stations on the ground.

Lower equipment costs and lower weight would allow for a service priced significantly below Connexion, Myers said. AirCell would like to offer mobile data services as well, but those await more regulatory changes.

LiveTV currently offers TV, satellite radio and other services on a variety of airlines. It is focused on using its spectrum for low-cost or free services featuring entertainment, on regional airlines, according to director of sales and marketing, Scott Easterling. The company has paid for its license and expects to go live in the fourth quarter of 2007.

The narrowness of LiveTV's 1MHz licensed band - which cost it about $7 million - wouldn't allow many passengers to simultaneously use a regular Wi-Fi broadband service, so that would probably carry a premium price if offered, Easterling said. But there may be ways for travellers to keep on top of business for free, such as through email, he said.

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Stephen Lawson

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