Southwest Airlines has announced that it will install Row 44's satellite-based Wi-Fi service on its entire fleet of 540 passenger aircraft. The decision sets the stage for a Wi-Fi battle in the skies with Aircell's Gogo Wi-Fi service, which is already installed in more than 700 U.S. aircraft.
In recent days, Aircell reported that it has raised $176 million in financing to spur the growth of its service. The FCC had held up approval for Row 44's service and Aircell rushed to install its service on aircraft of several different airlines.
"We'll begin installing the equipment in the second quarter of 2010," stated Southwest in a blog. "We expect to install equipment on around 15 aircraft per month initially, with the goal of increasing that number to 25 aircraft a month as we ramp up the process."
Row 44's service, which is supported by Hughes Network Systems, is expected to be offered on a global basis to other airlines as it is not constrained by terrestrial towers and can operate across oceans. Alaska Airlines, which flies over sections of the Pacific Ocean, also has installed Row 44 service. The FCC has outlawed all airlines from using VoIP communications for in-flight conversations.
The Canadian and Mexican governments have approved Row 44's service, clearing the way for cross border use of its system. Southwest has not yet set pricing for its service, but it said the service "will be a great value." Most of the existing Aircell service is priced around $12 and $13 per flight.
While usage figures are preliminary, as airlines gradually introduce the Wi-Fi service, Ron LeMay, Aircell's chief executive, has said usage is expected to grow substantially as more consumers fly with smartphones.
Citing the recent financing, LeMay said: "Aircell is well positioned to continue its ongoing aircraft deployment and rapid acceleration in customer adoption of Gogo throughout 2010 and beyond."
Aircell's Gogo service is offered American, Delta, AirTran, Virgin America, Air Canada, US Airways and Continental. AirTran has installed the Gogo service on its entire fleet of more than 300 aircraft.
Although its deployment lags Aircell's in numbers, Row 44 hopes it has some advantages that will boost its deployment. "Because we're satellite-based, we can offer higher bandwidth," said a Row 44 spokesman in an email. He added that Row 44's arrangement with Hughes means it "can quickly add capacity with almost no infrastructure costs." At the same time, Europe's Onair in-flight consumer communications service has shown interest in entering U.S. markets. Unlike in the U.S., where voice calls are banned on flights, cell phone service is offered throughout Europe and consumers like it, according to Onair. So far, however, flight attendant unions and some members of Congress have battled to ban voice calling on U.S. flights.