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Itasca-based Aircell moves closer to in-flight broadband service

by Jason M. Breslow
May 13, 2008


Itasca-based Aircell LLC has moved a step closer toward bringing in-flight broadband service to domestic air travel this year by entering into a technology partnership with Aricent Inc., a California company.

The alliance, announced Monday, pairs the two companies in the development of software and processing components for the data processor that enables Aircell’s in-flight service, Gogo. The components will allow for a clean flow of information between on-board devices, such as laptops and PDAs, and Aircell’s nationwide wireless network, which was completed in January. The “air-to-ground” network consists of 92 cell towers across the continental U.S.

“We needed somebody to come in and help us because we were on a very short deadline,” said Joe Cruz, chief technology officer at Aircell. 

Aircell plans to launch its Gogo service by the end of 2008. The company won Federal Aviation Administration approval for the service in April, and already has an agreement in place to equip 15 of AMR Corp.’s American Airlines aircraft with broadband. It is also working to bring broadband to all Virgin America Inc. passengers by the end of the year at an estimated cost of $12.95 per session for a six-hour flight. Shorter flights could cost less.

The potential for in-flight broadband “is pretty tremendous because it provides benefits in different ways,” according to Richard Owen, executive director of the World Airline Entertainment Association.

For passengers, Owen said, the service provides the convenience of surfing the Web. Wireless service also would allow carriers to reduce the weight of planes through the elimination of cables now necessary to access in-flight communication systems. With high fuel prices putting a serious strain on carriers, Owen said, such cost savings would not be overlooked by airlines.

Mary Kirby, senior editor of Flight International magazine, said broadband would enable passengers “to dictate their own in-flight entertainment.” Such capability, she explained, would give carriers the chance to scrap the pricey in-flight entertainment systems they often provide for passengers.

Aircell’s Gogo plans represent the second significant push in recent years to provide commercial air travelers with broadband service. Chicago-based Boeing Co. first tried to offer broadband via satellites, but dropped the plan in 2006 due to high costs and a weak market for the service.

Since then, however, the market has changed, according to Kirby. “Staying connected,” she said, “has become more and more important.”

And although Aircell’s air-to-ground service is typically slower than satellite-based broadband, she added, it is considered “generally, a much less expensive solution.”