by Matt Villano

WiFi on Southwest, Alaska Airlines Flights Set to Take Off

May 01, 20086 mins
MobileSmall and Medium BusinessWi-Fi

The airlines are working with startup wireless networking vendor Row44 to offer high-bandwidth connectivity via satellite this summer on commercial passenger flights.n

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.

Related on

An Introduction to Wireless

Deciding When to Upgrade to 802.11n

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 WiFi 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 said.

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.

For more on wireless networking, see Deciding When to Upgrade to 802.11n and An Introduction to Wireless.

Middle Seats on a Flying WiFi Network

Here’s how the system works.

Row44's In-flight WiFi Antenna
Row44’s WiFi antenna sits on top of a plane’s fuselage.

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 Earth.

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 to connect.

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 different.”

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 themselves.”

The only other challenge Row44 envisions is one of power.

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 reboot repeatedly.

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 Starbucks.

“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.”