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Alaska Air's CIO Weighs In On In-Flight Internet Services

As American Airlines begins to offer passengers Aircell's Gogo, Alaska Air is going with a satellite service. CIO Robert Reeder explains why.

As Alaska Airlines prepares to join other airlines in offering broadband Internet access from airplanes, CIO Robert Reeder raises an interesting question: What's a better approach for airlines, cell towers or satellite systems?

Airlines are starting to offer Internet access, but are falling into one of two camps: airplane antennas that beam down to cell towers, or beam up to satellites. Several airlines are lining up behind service provider Aircell, which has built its own cellular network, erecting towers across the United States, following the win of a coveted FCC frequency license in 2006.

American Airlines, for example, is using Aircell Gogo for the in-flight mobile broadband service it launched yesterday on flights between New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami, and Delta will also rollout Gogo across its domestic flights within about a year.

Aircell, however, could be limited by the speed at which it can erect new cell towers. That's one reason why Alaska Air chose Row 44, a company that offers an in-flight broadband service based on Hughes' satellite network system.

"The reason we went with that direction is (Aircell) doesn't work for us going to Mexico, Alaska, or Hawaii," Reeder said in an InformationWeek interview. "We wanted a service that we could really offer anywhere." One of the company's primary routes, Seattle to Anchorage, has very limited cell tower access, Reeder noted.

Alaska has said it plans to roll out Row 44's service across its fleet beginning this year. Southwest Airlines is also testing Row 44's service.

The new service is exciting not just because of its ability to give passengers with laptops, smartphones, PDAs, iPods, and gaming systems access to the Internet, but it'll also offer up the opportunity to offer more crew-conducted services to passengers, Reeder said.

"It's huge from an operational opportunity for things you can do," Reeder said. "Anywhere our employees engage with customers we have a network presence, except in the air."

For example, Reeder said, envision a service where crew members could ensure passengers that their luggage made it onto the plane via Web access to Alaska Air's luggage operations. "So the customer service things that would be possible, if the company decides to do them, could be pretty impressive," he said.

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