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Southwest, American test in-flight Wi-Fi

Airlines use different technologies for wireless access

January 23, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Mile-high Wi-Fi is taking off.

This week, Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Inc. separately announced that they will test systems that offer passengers in-flight Wi-Fi data access.

Both airlines would need Federal Aviation Administration approval before launching their Web services.

Southwest announced today that it will test satellite-delivered broadband Internet access on four aircraft this summer.

If the tests are successful and Southwest receives the FAA's OK, passengers of the airline who have Wi-Fi-enabled devices would be able to access the Internet to check e-mail and surf the Web.

The technology to be used aboard Southwest planes is from Row 44 Inc. in Westlake Village, Calif. In addition to data access, Row 44's system is designed to support cell phone and voice-over-IP service.

However, "Southwest has not embraced voice calling" because of passengers' concerns about cell phone calls made during flights, spokeswoman Brandy King said in an interview. "Voice is not a direction we're taking."

Yesterday, American Airlines said that it had installed a broadband Internet connection on a Boeing 767-200 plane and that it will install and test the technology on 15 such aircraft throughout the year. American uses 767-200s primarily for transcontinental flights.

American is using technology from Aircell LLC in Itasca, Ill.

Like Southwest, American plans to offer its passengers full data service but not cell phone or VoIP service.

Aircell provides an air-to-ground system that uses three lightweight antennas installed on the outside of the aircraft -- one mounted on top of the plane and the other two on the bottom. Wireless access points are distributed throughout the ceiling of the aircraft's interior. Each American aircraft will be connected to a network of 92 cell towers in the continental U.S. using a 3-MHz signal, the airline said.

The satellite-delivered system from Row 44 that Southwest is testing requires an antenna atop the plane's fuselage that communicates with satellite networks, according to Row 44's Web site.

In September, Aircell announced plans to equip Virgin America planes with Wi-Fi access systems this year. JetBlue Airways Corp., Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Qantas Airways Ltd. have also announced in-flight Wi-Fi in various forms.

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.



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