Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Airborne Wi-Fi, Take Two

The first attempt to add Internet access as a service on commercial airlines dates back to the turn of the century. Boeing's Connexion system, which used a satellite uplink to reach the Internet and onboard Wi-Fi for passenger connectivity, worked as advertised. But Connexion was only picked up a handful of carriers--none of them in the United States--and was discontinued in 2006 "due to lack of demand."

Now, a new wave of interest looks to bring online connectivity back to airlines, and this time, U.S. carriers have signed on for the ride. Delta is planning to have it up and running on select flights within days and promises fleet-wide services by next year. American, Southwest, Virgin America, and Jetblue have also made committments, albeit less ambitious ones.

What makes the new services, which come from various independent providers, better than their predecessor? For one thing, advances in technology make the equipment weigh about one fifth what the Connexion setup did; for another, it can be installed in a few days instead of a few weeks.

Most of all, though, it's a matter of cost to the passenger. Connexion service on a Lufthansa flight (one of the few carriers that did offer it) was more than $25.00. Delta's setting a target price of $9.95 for flights three hours or less in length, and $12.95 for longer flights. That's not much more than hotspot access in your local Starbucks.

Which begs the question: since we already have Internet-based phone service, does anyone really believe that onboard Internet use won't lead to onboard phone use?

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