U.S. In-flight Broadband Is A-gogo by Spring

If you’re a frequent flier to New York from San Francisco or Los Angeles, or just like to jet down to Miami to get away from the bitter New York winter, then you’re one of the lucky people who will have in-flight broadband by this spring, according to Jack Blumenstein, president and CEO of Itasca, Ill.-based Aircell. The company is calling its in-flight broadband service gogo.

“For the first six months, there will more broadband-enabled flights out of San Francisco,” Blumenstein said when we met for coffee earlier today. Aircell’s first two airline customers, Virgin America (based in the Bay Area) and American Airlines, are said to be working around the clock to get their planes ready.

In the initial phase, 15 of American Airlines’ 767s will be broadband-enabled; it plans to eventually take that number to 500. Virgin, by comparison, is looking to wire up all of its planes; it wants to provide broadband access to every seat via its back-seat system. Virgin wants people without laptops to spend dollars on broadband, I guess.

Aircell is also in talks with other airlines, but Blumenstein refused to reveal their names. He did tell me what the service is going to cost: $12.95 for cross-country flights such as San Francisco to New York, and $9.95 for flights with durations of three hours or less. Airlines, with whom Aircell will share revenues, are hot and heavy about this service for two reasons: in-flight Broadband not only provides a way to boost margins, but is a great way to lure business passengers aware from other carriers.

Aircell is currently contemplating striking up corporate user agreements with companies like iPass, it also has plans to work with aggregators like T-Mobile and Boingo. And it’s developing special lower-tier plans for devices such as iPhones, as well as flat-rate plans for “frequent fliers.”

Gogo uses a ground-to-air system that allows small antennas on the planes to pick up signals being pumped out terrestrially. Aircell has 92 giant antennas spread across the country, most of which sit in the same antenna farms that are used by cellular carriers; they can pump data that can be picked up at 45,000 square feet on planes flying at 500 miles per hour in a 350-mile radius. Despite not being commercially available, the system is currently operational.

Aircell has a roughly 3 MHz slice of same spectrum that was occupied by the Airfone service, enough for the company to send signals at around 3 megabits per second. (Canada and Mexico are doing the same, which means the Gogo system will work across North America.) Using compression and on-board caching, Aircell’s Gogo customers will experience broadband speeds of 2 megabits per second, Blumenstein said. Having not seen or tested the system, I am not quite certain on how realistic a number that is.

The technology being used for radio transmissions is a customized version of Qualcomm’s EV-DO Rev A technology. Blumenstein said that they can migrate to Rev B or LTE if and when those higher-speed technologies become available. The base stations for the system come from ZTE Corp., the Chinese telecom hardware vendor that is desperately trying to make a name for itself in the U.S. market. Aircell is using technology developed by Meru Networks to ensure that the on-board systems don’t run into capacity issues and all passengers can connect with the on-board 802.11 routers.

Aircell expects to deploy about 500 antennas, enough to cover the entire country and support as many as 250,000 broadband users. “We think we have a cost advantage over satellite-based systems as we are using proven technologies that are already in deployment,” said Blumenstein.

Now let’s see if customers want to show up for this service.