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Wi-Fi For Airline Passengers Moves Closer To Reality

Southwest and American Airlines say broader testing of satellite and ground antenna services could mean a summer-wide rollout.

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Jan 23, 2008

How would you like Wi-Fi on your flight: via ground antennae or satellite?

That's the choice air passengers are likely to have later this year as progress in both systems was announced this week.

Southwest Airlines on Wednesday said it is testing satellite-based service developed by Row 44. Southwest said it hopes to begin testing Internet service on four of its aircraft this summer.

Meanwhile, American Airlines on Tuesday reported that it has installed Aircell's Internet broadband on one of its 15 Boeing 767-200 aircraft. The air-to-ground technology utilizes a network of 92 cell towers scattered across the continental U.S.

Both technologies are expected to deliver Wi-Fi service -- likely for a fee -- to passengers. While users will be able to surf the Web and access their e-mail accounts, they will be blocked from using cell phones and VoIP.

American said it plans to install and test the technology in all 15 Boeing 767s and hopes to institute service on the planes this summer. Smaller planes may get the service later.

"There's a tremendous amount of intrigue and appeal for travelers to be able to utilize the Internet when traveling 30,000 feet above the United States at 500 miles per hour," said Dan Garton, American's executive VP of marketing, in a statement. The airline said the service will be rigorously tested before it is submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval.

Aircell's service, which also is being installed by Virgin Air, uses three lightweight antennae that are installed on the outside of aircraft.

In addition to Southwest, Row 44 is installing its service on Alaska Airlines, which has said it hopes to offer the service to passengers this year. Dave Ridley, Southwest's senior VP of marketing, said the Row 44 technology is very robust. In a statement, Ridley said: "Southwest is looking for the best solution for our customers not only for Internet e-mail access, but for additional in-flight entertainment as well."

Another airline, JetBlue Airways, has announced it is testing an in-flight wireless service with Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (NSDQ: RIMM).

A different approach to in-flight passenger communications already is under way in Europe, where talking on cell phones won't be outlawed as proposed in the United States. Air France is testing Mobile OnAir's system and passengers can use it for e-mail and Web surfing. Cell phone calling is planned to be approved in a few months on the Air France Airbus A-318 plane that is testing the service.

Southwest and American Airlines say broader testing of satellite and ground antenna services could mean a summer-wide rollout.

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