Finally, Wi-Fi on the airlines

You've probably heard about the coming of in-flight Wi-Fi. In fact you have heard it from me when I wrote about Connexion by Boeing.

I thought that Connexion by Boeing was going to be real. But, unfortunately, Boeing closed it down. In fact, I am told it is up on the auction block with no takers so far.

But this time I'm very sure it will happen for a number of reasons.

In the summer of 06, a company called AirCell won the FCC auction for the 800-MHz spectrum, the only spectrum that is licensed to transmit air to ground [ATG]. They paid $31 million and beat out the former owners, AirPhone. AirPhone was the company that offered the in-flight phone service from the seat back in front of each passenger.

A little more than a year later AirCell's Broadband System will be available on American Airlines, in coach, business and first class, in the first half of 2008.

AirCell is also close to a signed deal with Virgin and is talking to all the others to offer in-flight Wi-Fi service at a cost similar to what you would pay for a hot spot connection on the ground.

AirCell is using cellular rather than satellite technology which may be one reason why it will succeed where Boeing failed.

Instead of having to send a signal 24,000 miles into space, the cellular technology travels only five miles to the ground, requiring half the weight of equipment on board the plane and doing it far more cheaply than the cost of satellite transmissions.

AirCell CTO Joe Cruz tells me if a plane arrives for an overnight stay at O'Hare Airport at midnight it can be retrofitted for Wi-Fi before the first flight in the morning.

You can expect a 3.1Mbps up-link performance to the plane and 1.8Mbps down link, according to Cruz.

Obviously, anything you can do over the Internet you will be able to do on the plane, including email, VPN, text messaging and surfacing the Web using any Wi-Fi-enabled device.

AirCell could be used for VoIP but Cruz said at this point it doesn’t appear to be a priority with customers.

For those interested, AirCell was able to get the spectrum because the license expired.

AirCell's service requires 92 ground stations to cover the continental U.S. and they expect to complete leasing deals for space on towers and in-building space for a couple of racks of equipment to house batteries, power and radio equipment before the year is out.

Of course, this takes away the last refuge of over-worked mobile warriors who used to be able to use time in flight as a legitimate communications blackout period to catch some Zzzzs.

-- By Ephraim Schwartz