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In-flight broadband still on track

Despite Boeing's failure

One provider's planned in-flight Wi-Fi and voice services may arrive a bit later than expected, but US business users should keep their eyes open for possible good news, too: competition.

AC BidCo won a US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) auction earlier this year for 3MHz of radio spectrum to be used for in-flight communications services. The company's affiliate, AirCell, said last week its offer of Wi-Fi hotspots and other services on airliners should get off the ground commercially in early 2008. That's later than the forecast it gave in June, when it said commercial service would go live in 2007.

AirCell is working to complete the FCC licensing process and expects to get its licence, for which it bid $31.3m (about £17m), in the next 30 days, according to a company statement. The company changed its forecast just to give it more breathing room and may still go live in late 2007, said Tom Myers, director of marketing.

Despite a brave effort by Boeing, which said last month it would shut down its Connexion service after failing to attract enough users, personal in-flight communication has had a bumpy ride. For more than 20 years, Verizon offered its Airfone service, which uses wired phones in seatbacks, but that expensive service wasn't widely used and last month was discontinued on airlines. In 2004, the FCC gave Verizon a non-renewable five-year licence and moved to auction off the 4MHz radio spectrum that had been used for Airfone's air-to-ground links.

AC BidCo got 3MHz of the spectrum, while JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV got 1MHz. The companies expect other North American countries to make similar spectrum changes in the next few years that will allow them to expand across the continent.

AirCell plans to set up 802.11b/g access points in planes for internet access that will look to passengers like DSL (digital subscriber line) broadband, Myers said. They could even make VoIP (voice over IP) calls if an airline allowed it, though AirCell can shut down that capability at an airline's request. The company will use EV-DO (evolution-data optimised) third-generation mobile technology to link the plane to base stations on the ground. Lower equipment costs and weight will allow for a service priced significantly below Connexion, Myers said. AirCell would like to offer mobile data services as well, but those await more regulatory changes, he said.

LiveTV currently offers TV, satellite radio and other services on a variety of airlines. It is focused on using its spectrum for low-cost or free services featuring entertainment, on regional airlines, according to Scott Easterling, director of sales and marketing at LiveTV. The company has paid for its licence and expects to go live in the fourth quarter of 2007.

The narrowness of LiveTV's 1MHz licensed band – which cost it about $7m (£3.7m) – wouldn't allow many passengers to simultaneously use a normal Wi-Fi broadband service, so that would probably carry a premium price if offered, Easterling said. But there may be ways for travellers to keep on top of business for free, such as through email, he said.

"We can give away a connectivity experience that would be very acceptable to people," Easterling said.


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