WiFi on Southwest, Alaska Airlines Flights Set to Take Off
The airlines are working with startup wireless networking vendor Row44 to offer high-bandwidth connectivity via satellite this summer on commercial passenger flights.n
By Matt Villano
Somewhere over Nebraska, 32,000 feet above a cornfield
the length of ten football fields, it hits you: you neglected
to send your system administrator a critical e-mail before your
plane left the runway.
No network connection, and lots of frustration. Soon, however, thanks to one upstart vendor and at least two
eager commercial airline carriers, connecting to the Internet
in mid-air will be as easy as it is at your neighborhood Starbucks.
The vendor, named Row44, is at the center of a renewed
effort to bring pay-per-use, hotspot-style broadband
connectivity to airline passengers.
John Guidon, the company’s CEO and co-founder, says
the technology is an innovation whose time has arrived; a
service that takes advantage of existing infrastructure to
provide a valuable resource to passengers who’ve wanted
it for years.
“We always knew that at some point this would have to
be a reality,” says Guidon, who helped start the company
in 2003. “That reality now is finally here.”
As of last month, Row44’s plan was to pilot its
technology on select domestic flights with Alaska Airlines and
Southwest Airlines starting this summer. Connection speeds
likely will vary, but Guidon said most flights usually will
offer a minimum of 30 megabits per second. The price: as low as
$9.95 per flight.
Mike Masnick, CEO of Techdirt, a corporate intelligence and
high-tech consulting company in Sunnyvale, Calif., said this
connectivity option could revolutionize the way passengers
work when they fly.
“Especially for long-haul flights, I think this will
become a necessity for most business travelers,” he
Masnick added that he would use the service “in a
heartbeat,” noting that “It would allow me to get
real work done while flying” and that “without
other distractions, I might be even get more done than I would
in the office.”
Row44 certainly isn’t the first vendor to dip its toe
in the mid-air Wi-Fi market. Earlier this decade, in 2004, Boeing partnered with Lufthansa and a number of other airlines
to offer a similar service—dubbed Connexion by
Boeing—on many flights.
The infrastructure for this system used a phased array
antenna or mechanically steered Ku-band antenna on each
aircraft, leased satellite transponders, and ground stations to
distribute the signal. By 2006, however, Boeing pulled the
plug, citing the lack of a viable market.
According to Guidon, the Row44 system is sleeker, more
reliable and easier to manage.
First, participating airlines must affix a teardrop-shaped
antenna and to the top of each fuselage. Each antenna is
comprised of 64 microwave horns which can move on command, and
each is designed to receive a Ku-band, Radio Frequency (RF)
signal from one of three different satellites orbiting the
Once the signal is captured, it is transmitted through two
RF cables into an up/down converter (which also includes a
power amplifier function), and sent through L-band Intermediate
Frequency (IF) cables to a separate modem data unit.
This unit, specially designed by Hughes Network Systems, contains a modem
that receives the IF information and converts it to
Ethernet, which is then transmitted to a Server Management
Unit—a general purpose PC that routes the traffic to
various Cisco WiFi hotspots on board the plane.
All of this technology and networking gear can be installed
in two overnights and managed remotely. End-users need to have
laptops or other devices which are Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n) enabled
Security, Reliability Questions to Answer
As with any network, there are security concerns for users
who are handling corporate data. Norm Rose, president of
TravelTech Consulting, in Belmont,
Calif., said that especially for companies which expect CIOs
and other C-level executives to conduct confidential
business in mid-air, trusting a system that transmits data
over third party transponders could become dangerous.
“One key question is whether or not someone in the
middle could swoop in and steal part of the signal,” he
says. “Security is a concern at hotspots and this is no
In response to this skepticism, Steve Redford, CTO at Row44,
suggested that business travelers transmit all sensitive data
over a Virtual Private Network (VPN), something “road
warriors” should be in the habit of doing regardless of
how or where they connect.
Redford noted that as Row44’s service offerings
expand, the company could be faced with an infinitely more
controversial problem: facilitating in-air telephone calls via
Voice Over IP.
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission
prohibits the use of cellular phones while in-flight,
thereby eliminating the possibility for passengers to make
in-air phone calls without shelling out big bucks to use
seat-back phones. With unfiltered Wi-Fi, however, anyone
with Skype or VoIP software would be able to chat away for
the price of a standard connection.
“Especially when a business traveler connects through
a VPN, there’s absolutely no way for us to control what
that person is doing online,” Redford says, noting that
the company has looked into enabling individual airlines to
prioritize certain types of traffic. “If people are using
the service to make phone calls and they’re talking
loudly, we fully expect other passengers to police
The only other challenge Row44 envisions is one of
Anybody who’s been on a plane before knows that the
aircraft’s main cabin power turns on and off at least two
or three times each flight—a reality that would force all
of the hardware supporting these broadband connections to
Guidon, the CEO, says the company is working on battery
backups for the networking equipment that comply with
Federal Aviation Administration
regulations, as well as IP addressing technology to allow
passengers to have the same kind of seamless connections
they would find at on the hotspots at their local
“We need to make sure our systems can deal with these
interruptions, come back from them seamlessly and consistently
act like nothing has happened,” he says.
“We’ll figure it out eventually, but in the
meantime, the bottom line is this: flying is about to get a lot
more productive, and that’s going to make a lot of
business travelers very, very happy.”